In March 2005, Larry Clark held his first exhibit in New York City at the International Center of Photography across from Bryant Park. He has worked in the city off and on since the late 1970s, but until 2005 did not put his work on display. The work in question was a collection of photographs taken in Tulsa, circa 1965-1970.
I’ve never met Larry, but he and I share a lifelong interest in adolescence. His urge has been to document; mine to teach. Clark has turned a 30-year obsession of capturing adolescence on countless negatives into a career while I, on the other hand, have worked with juvenile delinquents on the East Coast, was as a social worker in Oklahoma City, and spent five years teaching middle school English. For both of us, the proximity to adolescents must in some way be cathartic—pleasure or enlightenment via pain. It sounds sexual, like a Lolita sort of thing, but it’s not. For me, it has been a way to reconnect with a time I have never been able to completely make sense of. Almost every time I sit down to write, something related to my seventh grade year comes up—the things that haunted me during that year of my life continue to haunt me today, if only less and less with each passing year.
My mother is seven years younger than Clark. In the world of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, my mother was a “soc,” Larry a “greaser.” They grew up no more than two or three miles from each other, but many worlds apart. My mother was the daughter of Oral Roberts and lived in a bubble of Christian mores and ostentatious luxury, while Larry lived in what were then the poorest conditions in the city, at least for white folks.
I was in New York this same March on a personal odyssey of my own. For at least the last 15 years, I had been running from a lot of things, my homosexuality and leaving behind fundamentalist Christianity, to name two. I came to New York to walk the streets and ponder all this, having decided that, upon my return, my wife and I could no longer stay married.
I had read of the Larry Clark exhibit and decided to be there the day it opened. Ten years before, I’d become a big fan of his, having first encountered him with the film Kids. I was attending the University of Oklahoma when the film came out in 1995; it never showed in theaters in my college town and was difficult to find at the video store, but I found it and was blown away. Rarely do you see a film that truly captures adolescent life. For Americans, adolescence is usually dolled-up, glorified, and comic. How doesn’t he hold back? Let’s provide a scene.
Picture this, a scene from Larry’s more recent film Bully, set in the seedier side of sunny Hollywood. A straight kid, 17, handsome and muscular in that ribs-showing muscularity typical of a high-school male frame. Picture this same kid standing on a stage, in his underwear. In a gay club. Older gay men gawking, holding up dollar bills; he earns over $300. The movie doesn’t comment on whether this scene is good or bad. Refusing to preach, Larry documents, which, in its own way, is a call to action.
When I went to New York in 2005, I was already familiar with Clark’s photography. While in college, I had combed the local libraries for his books after seeing Kids and the best I could come up with was a copy of his book Tulsa at the University of Oklahoma Fine Arts Library. It was on reserve and could only be viewed at the library; there was even a time limit to the viewing. Sitting in the library looking at these photographs felt like smoking in the boys’ room–my heart was racing and held the book closed anytime someone walked by. The pictures were both an embarrassment and a relief. Embarrassing because they were were taboo, and I was forced to view them in the open. A relief, because I saw in them an honest portrayal of events for which I felt some kinship. I had never used heroin, held a gun, or been especially poor, but the images of teens being “bad” while the face of Jesus smiled from the walls of suburban Tulsa homes felt very familiar.
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Years later, at the age of 30, I climbed on a plane to New York to finish what I had started long before. Clark, with his once-banned documentary photographs from my mother’s hometown, seemed to touch on everything I was trying to figure out—religion, adolescence, sexuality, violence. This was the legacy I had spent my adult life running from. It was the legacy I was trying to finally stop and face. Going to see Clark’s first-ever exhibit was like coming full circle—I was making an active choice to figure out what all these pieces meant, being gay, growing up on a Pentecostal compound, the sexual abuse, the marriage to a woman—and most of all what I wanted to know was, well, what now?
When I finally did separate from my wife and come out as a gay man, my copy of Clark’s Tulsa became a point of contention. Once, my ex-wife came to my apartment unannounced and started throwing books out of the book shelf saying, “Where is it, where is it goddamnit, I’m going to the judge?!?” She was convinced that part of my “homosexual agenda” would include showing pornography to my children, and Clark’s presence in my bookshelf— even on the top shelf and out of reach of the children—had always bothered her.
“Where is it???” she kept demanding. She didn’t find it on that visit, and for the next six months I stored my copy of Tulsa at a friend’s house, not wanting to give my ex-wife any opportunity to produce ammo to some family law judge in Oklahoma City before our custody arrangement was settled—as the main care provider of our children, I wanted 50/50 custody at a minimum, and as an out gay man, was terrified I wouldn’t get it. I did.
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Walking into the exhibit, I should have known what I was getting myself into. I had seen all the photographs before. I had read everything Larry Clark had ever written. I thought I was prepared for what I was about to see. I was not.
I can’t remember the first photograph I saw in the exhibit. In fact, the whole experience is now a blur. I saw what I expected to see, and what anyone familiar with Clark has seen before—adolescents holding guns, babies, and needles. Sometimes they are holding several of these things at once: a 15-year-old boy holding a 13-year-old girl, a gunshot wound in his leg; a pregnant teenager, holding a baby in her womb and a needle to her arm. Picture adolescents, guns, babies, and needles in various assortments and you have pictured the extent of the exhibit. There is really nothing else to it.
By the third photograph, I was crying. They were small tears, lightly streaming down my face. I rarely cried at that time in my life; five years would easily pass between one cry and the next, but here I was crying. I continued along the wall, looking into Clark’s windows of Tulsa, Oklahoma, my mother’s hometown. Within ten minutes, I was choked up. I could hardly breathe. My heart was racing. The man on my right was trying to move me along the walls faster, and I finally stepped back and let him pass, looking for a place to sit down.
By the time I was downstairs, I could hardly see the images through the tears in my eyes. It felt wrong. I felt exposed. It felt like my own dirty laundry on display in a bright, brave, proud city that could hardly, in one exhibit, pretend to grasp Clark’s photographs. They were personal for me, and I was suddenly defensive of my fellow Oklahomans. I usually think of myself as a cross-breed: born in Tulsa, moved to Colorado, then California, back to Colorado, back to Oklahoma, and then Germany, Connecticut, Oklahoma again, and, eventually, Texas. But on that day I was from Tulsa, and I was angry, embarrassed, upset. As a liberal secular humanist I “know” that hiding your past sins is wrong, but sometimes it feels very right.
I don’t know why Clark didn’t hold an exhibit until 2005. If he’s anything like me, then perhaps it’s because he understands that, while it is important to photograph these things and record them and experience them up close, it is also a very personal thing and can’t truly be experienced on the pretty white walls of a gallery. This is dirty stuff, messy, ugly, and horrible, and its beauty is only in the ancient maxim, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth.” But for that, there is no reason to put yourself through a viewing of Larry Clark. Or to work with juvenile delinquents, or to be a social worker, or to teach middle school.
My life has taken many strange turns since 2005 when I cried in that gallery, but my heart is still in the same place, and these days I’m trying to help coordinate efforts to make things better for teenagers. Gay teens specifically, kids who are often kicked out of their homes by fundamentalist parents—gay teens have the highest suicide rate of any other portion of the population. Larry makes a difference by bearing witness, by documenting, by asking us to look at things we don’t want to see. And me, I’m trying to do my own small part to suggest one thing—let these teenagers be who they were made to be.