preview of the icp's 2005 larry clark exhibition

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Larry Clark, the photographer everyone loves to argue about—is he a visionary with a unique perspective on teens or just a pervert?—is having his first retrospective, and it is, to say the least, a charged time for these controversial images to be splashed across a major institution’s walls. When PBS gets attacked for letting a cartoon bunny make friends with a few lesbians, you have to wonder what the response will be to a roomful of explicit photos labeled Teenage Lust.

And that, of course, is not the only part of “Larry Clark” that provokes. The show consumes virtually every inch of space in New York City’s International Center of Photography. In addition to photographs (including outtakes from his groundbreaking first book, 1971’s Tulsa), the museum has amassed his videos, bookmaking, collages, and films for a comprehensive look at Clark, who pioneered a personal approach to photojournalism, paving the self-reflective way for visual diarists like Nan Goldin. The show is an eyeful—of kids injecting drugs into themselves and others, of gun-brandishing, of teens having sex, about to have sex, whatever. It’s unvarnished and unapologetically candid.

Clark’s unremitting curiosity in what curator Brian Wallis calls “the teenage experience” may be questionable—especially considering that at age 62, Clark is long past his own pubescent days. But by the time you’ve wound through the chronologically arranged exhibition, all the way downstairs, through the room dedicated to his 1983 book, Teenage Lust, and on to “Punk Picasso” (ranging from old albums to family photos and ephemera, it’s a retrospective of his own making)—you may be less inclined to point your finger at the photographer than at a pop culture infused with mixed messages about sex, gender roles, and violence. This notion might come to you in, say, the room containing Clark’s video work, where there’s a poster of a young Matt Dillon. The actor is in jeans and no shirt, his scrawny chest smooth and his hair long. He’s an echo of Clark’s youthful rebels, packaged for mainstream consumption.  

“One of the major themes in Clark’s work is really tracing this idea of masculinity,” Wallis explained at the exhibition’s press preview. “How one becomes a man in American culture, with all the various cues and tendencies towards violence, towards misogyny, towards homophobia.” Though even Wallis acknowledged that Clark “sometimes reduces them in a way that appears offensive.”

It seems it was Clark’s destiny to be a photographer. He was born and raised in Tulsa, where his parents ran a  successful photo business. They’d go around to people’s houses and take photos of babies and kids, and then come back offering the prints for sale. When Clark was 13, he started taking portraits for the business too, and his camera became a constant companion, even when he was just hanging out with his friends. Wallis says he told him that he’d take pictures of his buddies, never imagining he’d do anything with the photos. But, of course, his autobiography—and he is being autobiographical even when he’s shooting other people’s lives—became his art, and an undeniably influential one that even extends to film: Clark has directed five movies, including 1995’s Kids, and at press time was editing his latest feature, Wassup, Rockers? (starring Kids alum Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson).

Still, as a viewer, it can be hard to be unflinching as Clark is, a dilemma Wallis fully comprehends. Clark’s work “often involves some things that might be shocking or things that you just generally don’t see pictures of,” says the curator. “But that’s an important point to Clark—he was always trying to take pictures that he had never seen before. He was always pushing the envelope of what was allowed in photography.”

(Published in the May 2005 issue of PDN.)