New York

Larry Clark

In Larry Clark’s moral universe, subtlety is generally confined to the outer reaches of a minor nebula. In the final pages of his photo book Tulsa (1971), for instance, an image of a young pregnant woman shooting amphetamine is notoriously succeeded by one of a dolled-up infant in a tiny casket; rarely does one see action and (dreadful) consequence presented in such audacious proximity. Given this lineage, it was a bit unnerving that Clark’s latest exhibition of photographs, titled simply “Los Angeles 2003–2006,” opened with a snapshot of a baby in a pink tub, naked, wet, and very much alive. The question bound to arise for anyone familiar with Clark’s gritty, unflinching narratives was: “What’s going to happen to it?”

The answer? Not much. The photograph—from 1990, and the only one in the show not taken by Clark himself—depicts a one-year-old Jonathan Velasquez, the insouciant, sweetly handsome subject of all but one of the show’s twenty-nine images. Velasquez, a charismatic Guatemalan skater from South Central Los Angeles, is the latest addition to Clark’s growing cast of young “discoveries.” For reasons difficult to parse, Velasquez is treated with uncharacteristic reverence.

Consider Clark’s account, in the introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, of his first meeting with Velasquez: “It was like he dropped out of heaven. I started photographing the kids skateboarding and Tiffany [Limos] with Jonathan. A few hours later the French ladies [employees of Rebel magazine, for which Clark was on assignment] had Tiffany and Jonathan in French underwear. He was a natural. I’m thinking, is this legal?” The most shocking facet of the narrative is not that Clark shot a fourteen-year-old posing in French underwear, but that the creator of such harrowing books as Teenage Lust (1983) or films like Ken Park (2002) could show even passing concern for the legality of what amounts to tame, softcore titillation. Somehow, Velasquez landed in Clark’s frame as a cipher for the innocent other—a nonchalant Tadzio happy to play and pose for the obsessive, peripatetic shutterbug. Death in Venice Beach.

Many of the resultant photographs capture Velasquez’s habitual cocksure bravado. In one from 2004, he leaps playfully to plant his exposed butt cheeks on the window of a parked van. In another picture from the same year—a portrait of Velasquez sporting a pillar box red Mohawk dusted with bits of dandruff—that same swagger grudgingly concedes a tenuous vulnerability. It’s perhaps easy to understand how Velasquez came to stand in for “Los Angeles.” The photographs are decidedly cheery; sun-drenched snapshots and informal, languorous portraits have supplanted the moody and elegant chiaroscuro of Clark’s earlier work. One print, Jonathan, Louie, Edie, 2004, even seems to mock Clark’s sordid history, as Velasquez and friends mirthfully feign punching each other for the camera.

Unlike Clark’s 2005 film Wassup Rockers, a semifictionalized account of Velasquez and his friends’ negotiations of the racism that regulates the borders of LA’s disparate neighborhoods, these photographs have no discernible moral. They are remarkable for being entirely unremarkable. Perhaps the most compelling feature of “Los Angeles” is the unusual nature of the relationship between the sixty-four-year-old Clark and his teenage subject. Whereas previously Clark’s métier was the general category of youth and its transgressions, here his focus has narrowed to a single individual, his gaze transfigured by an uncharacteristically tender—even protective—specificity. While often sultry, Velasquez is never shown as sad or abject, certainly never fearful. Indeed, for a subject diligently photographed over the course of nearly four years, the emotional range is strikingly narrow; his hair changes, but his poses and expressions remain almost stoically casual. Occasionally one suspects that Clark simply never broke the surface. But it’s also possible that, acting the proud parent, an enamored Clark wanted to present nothing but this reflection of cool masculinity.

David Velasco