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Seeing Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” Through Fresh Eyes

The California Museum of Photography UCR ARTSblock, Riverside, presents a new way of looking at one of the most revolutionary photography books of our time.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Larry Clark, Untitled, 1963, from the series “Tulsa,” 1963-71.

In 1971, America photographer Larry Clark published Tulsa with Lustrum Press, owned by Ralph Gibson, sparking a wave of controversy across the nation. The book, which features fifty black and white photographs taken by Clark in 1963, 1968, and 1971, reveal the dark side of American youth culture in the heartland of America. Drugs, sex, and guns were front and center, as much the subject of the book as the people themselves with Clark a participant, rather than a voyeur. He brought a new level of authenticity to his work, and in doing so Tulsa changed the very nature of documentary photography itself.

Also: Exhibit | Danny Lyon: Conversations with the Dead

Forty-five years after the book’s release, a new exhibition of photographs adds a new layer of perspectives to the story of this work in Unruly Bodies: Dismantling Larry Clark’s Tulsa at the California Museum of Photography UCR ARTSblock, Riverside, now through January 28, 2017. Curated by graduate students from the History of Art and the Public History Program, Unruly Bodies speaks to the new generation reflecting on the past, reflecting on Clark’s watershed moment in contemporary photography, pairing his work alongside that of Danny Lyon, Bill Eppridge, and W. Eugene Smith to critical effect.

Larry Clark, Untitled, 1963, from the series “Tulsa,” 1963-71

Larry Clark, Untitled, 1963, from the series “Tulsa,” 1963-71

These intriguing pairings provide a context by which to consider Clark’s work, which did not form in a vacuum but rather the apple tipping over the cart. At the time both Eppridge and Smith had been practicing photojournalism in the traditional sense, as journalists with the eye of an artist. This is a difficult position to hold for it calls into question the objectivity of the act of photography itself. By becoming a participant, Clark integrated himself, casting aside the need for create objectivity in and of itself. Tulsa exalts the subjective state, so much so that it reflects the nature of life itself; when you’re inside the matrix it’s nearly impossible to find the way out.

Clark prefaced the book with a brief statement: “i was born in tulsa oklahoma in 1943. When i was sixteen i started shooting amphetamine. i show with my friends everyday for three year and then left town but i’ve gone back through the years. once the needle goes in it never comes out. L.C.”

Larry Clark, Dead 1970, 1968, from the series “Tulsa,” 1963-71

Larry Clark, Dead 1970, 1968, from the series “Tulsa,” 1963-71

From the beginning, we are told: Clark is in collusion with his subjects, and in doing so, Clark tells us exactly what we want to know. He crafts as silent saga of self-destruction, allowing the story to unfold in a carefully constructed sequence of photographs that take us through a drug-fueled haze of chaos, violence, exploitation, and death.

Paired with works from Danny Lyon’s 1968 series Bike Riders, a project often seen as a precursor to Tulsa, the exhibition explores the representation of masculinity living on the fringe of white America in the mid-twentieth century, revealing the underbelly of the American Dream. Taken together, we can consider the space in which the impulse to document the fringe has elevated it to the realm of art, and the way in which the photographers force viewers to stop, look, and pay attention. And in doing so, once again we see what we want to believe, for the anti-hero is truly an American legend.

Larry Clark, Accidental Gunshot Wound, 1971, from the series “Tulsa,” 1963-71

Larry Clark, Accidental Gunshot Wound, 1971, from the series “Tulsa,” 1963-71

All photos: © Larry Clark; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.