In preparation for my first visit to Tulsa, my potential boss reassured me over the phone, “I know what you’re thinking, and don’t worry, it’s not like a Steinbeck novel.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had conjured up a mental image far more disturbing: Larry Clark’s Tulsa.
I moved to Tulsa nine months ago, so I can’t comment on what the book or larger Tulsa series means to this community. I’ve often wondered about it and, frankly, have been reluctant to raise the issue with more than a couple of people. I assumed it was a black mark on the city’s collective consciousness, one that was better left undiscussed.
Clark’s influence on a particular variety of photography—an insider’s view of a subculture’s seedy underbelly—is unquestionable. It’s hard to imagine certain images by Robert Mapplethorpe, or the entire output of Nan Goldin or Terry Richardson existing had Clark not paved the way. Even Ryan McGinley, whose exuberant subjects might seem to be the antithesis of Clark’s, owes his approach to what his elder pioneered.
It is difficult to look at Clark’s work with fresh eyes. The infamy of the series and the artist’s subsequent fame—all the more far- reaching due to his foray into feature filmmaking—weighs Tulsa down with the baggage of its reputation.
On the other hand, I hadn’t heard of Gaylord Herron or seen the book Vagabond until recently. Perhaps the relative obscurity of Herron’s work allows it to be unhampered by expectations, and ripe for (re)discovery.
On the surface, the books are similar. Both document an alienated generation lost in the Heartland, coming of age in troubled times. In one, God is replaced by meth, in the other, He is replaced by the bomb. But further reflection bears out that these are two very different works of art.
As others have pointed out, Clark’s book, despite its title, is not truly site-specific. It could take place in any one of a number of places where boredom, ignorance, and discontentment have devastating consequences. Herron’s, on the other hand, gives a multisensory evocation of its locale’s sights, smells and textures.
Clark’s book is despairing; a document of people with nothing left to lose, intent on self-destruction. Clark explicitly tells us that death is the only release for this troubled clan. The picture Herron paints is more complex. He conveys how stifling society can be; the shackles of institutional convention, and the hollow promise of salvation. But even as he evokes the taint of original sin and birthright, he mixes in redemption and renewal. Layered in its tweaked-out weirdness is hope.
Clark’s subjects may be rebels, but they are living inside a narcissistic vacuum, disconnected from everyone and everything else. Herron’s characters may be losers, but they have a sense of their place in the larger world, aware of and affected by politics and war. They are plagued by their own patterns of bad behavior: tardiness, mistakes, laziness, boredom. As inauspicious as these traits may be, they point to the ability to make choices, and to their humanity.
This issue’s articles by Shantelle Jennings and Grant McClintock provide insight into what has happened to the books’ creators and protagonists in the years since their publication. It is not entirely surprising to discover that indeed, one group was headed down a dead end, the other towards a perhaps imperfect, but sovereign future.
Lauren Ross is the Nancy E. Meinig Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Philbrook Museum of Art.