Larry Clark’s Tulsa, The dance between documentary and staging, distance and involvement.

I was so impressed that Presentation House Gallery , North Vancouver, took the daring step last fall to exhibit Larry Clark: Tulsa. I first saw selections of this work at Moderna Museet in 2009, and was elated to have the opportunity to see Tulsa in full.

The show at the Presentation House was moving, beautifully laid out, and deliciously unsettling.  Yes, the pieces are shocking and devastating, but I was most struck by the beauty of the work- the black and white, the composition and the powerful HONESTY.

"i do a lot of burning and dodging when making a print and then use bleach. there's not a straight print in the TULSA book. when i'm photographing i always try to shoot against the light the film can't handle this and everything gets burned up, since i'm exposing for the shadows." - Larry Clark
PLEASE BE ADVISED that this exhibition contains graphic material of sexual and provocative nature that is NOT suitable for young and sensitive viewers.
Larry’s Clark’s photographs are an incisive portrait of his social scene in Tulsa Oklahoma from 1963 to 1971. First published as a photo essay in the legendary book Tulsa that was conceived as a type of screenplay, the photographs here are displayed in keeping with the book’s layout. The recently unearthed Tulsa film of 1968 highlights Clark’s early interest in cinematic narratives, later developed in his films and collage works. At time posing but usually unaware of the camera, the characters in the Tulsa story are melancholic teenagers who become violent and sad addicts, with several deaths along the way. Shot in natural light using a Leica camera with a silent shutter release that records continuously, Clark’s intimate perspective reveals the shadowy dramas of his subjects: drug injections, young thugs playing with loaded guns, teenage sex. His unflinching view of a previously undocumented drug culture in middle America reveals the uncertainty, innocence, and savagery of adolescence.

Tulsa is acclaimed for its powerful impact as both social documentary and subjective autobiography—a reputation due in no small part to its enduring capacity to shock. Larry Clark is an uncompromising photographer whose striking refusal to moralize allows for an intimacy with his subjects that is only possible from an insider:  “I’ve never been a distanced observer, it’s always been autobiographical, I was just one of the people, one of the guys. I happened to have a camera because my parents had this baby-photography business. When I was out with friends, shooting drugs, I would have my equipment with me, because I would be coming from or going to work.”  As an embedded witness with refined skills as a photographer, he gave palpable expression to the abject realities of this outsider culture.

Born in 1943, Larry Clark lives and works in New York and Los Angeles. His artwork is included in major museum collections and is exhibited worldwide, most recently in a solo exhibition Kiss the Past Hello at the Musée D’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He has produced many feature films; the latest one, Wassup Rockers, will be screened on September 21. Clark continues to experiment with the medium of the book and to focus on looking at contemporary teenage life.

There is a quiet dialogue here, like with Arbus, with the role that the photographer plays in his/her work- the dance between documentary and staging, distance and involvement.  This is what I find most captivating in the works of some of my other favorite artists that belong in the same category as Clark:

Photographer, Anders Petersen:

Recall my post re: Anders Petersen, Cafe Lehmitz

Photographer, Diane Arbus:

Photographer, Fred Herzog:

Filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman:

Filmmaker, Allan King:

Filmmaker, Albert Mayles:

As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It is my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes, experiences—all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery. And the closer I adhere to reality the more honest and authentic my tales. After all, knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.


1. Distance oneself from a point of view.
2. Love your subjects.
3. Film events, scenes, sequences; avoid interviews, narration, a host.
4. Work with the best talent.
5. Make it experiential, film experience directly, unstaged, uncontrolled.
6.There is a connection between reality and truth. Remain faithful to both.

Some Do’s and Dont’s

• Hold it steady.
• Use manual zoom, not the electronic.
• Read as much of the PD 170 manual as you can.
• Read book or chapter in a photography book on how to compose shots.
• Use the steady device that’s in the camera.
• Never use a tripod (exception: filming photographs, for example).
• You’ll get a steadier picture the more wide-angle the shot. In a walking shot go very wide angle.
• Hold the beginning and end of each shot. The editor will need that.
• Use no lights. The available light is more authentic.
• Learn the technique but equally important keep your eye open to watch the significant moment. Orson Welles: “The cameraman’s camera should have behind its lens the eye of a poet.”
• Remember, as a documentarian you are an observer, an author but not a director, a discoverer, not a controller.
• Don’t worry that your presence with the camera will change things. Not if you’re confident you belong there and understand that in your favor is that of the two instincts, to disclose or to keep a secret, the stronger is to disclose.
• It’s not “fly-on-the-wall”. That would be mindless. You need to establish rapport even without saying so but through eye contact and empathy.

– Albert Mayles [source]

[Note: There is a concurrent exhibit: Kohei Yoshiyuki: The Park. Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photographs taken at night around Tokyo from 1971 to 1979 capture sexual encounters between straight and gay partners, and the voyeurs who stalked them.]

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