By Ellen Wallenstein, Spot Magazine, Fall 1985
The cover photograph of Larry Clark’s book Teenage Lust is a gorgeously lit rectangle of boy/girl flesh on the seat of a car, her hand around his penis, his hand at her crotch, their tongues touching. The quintessence of teenage lust: hot stuff in the back of a car/on the cover of a book.
The inside cover: a man and a woman seated at a table in a restaurant, his hand on her arm behind the water glasses. Between them is a cute young boy in a dark plaid shirt, over a white shirt with his name on it. All three look into the camera with tight-lipped grins, but no one is really smiling.
The frontispiece: a photograph of that same boy, in a white shirt, hair neatly combed, holding up a Roy Rogers camera. He is looking out beyond the viewer. Under the photograph, in handwritten letters, the subtitle of the book: An Autobiography by Larry Clark.
Most autobiographies are written pieces, with photographs used for illustration and/or historical purposes. In Clark’s book, the photographs serve as text, while the afterword, a twenty-seven-page speedtrip of words, fills in all the biographical information and serves as the verbal glue that gives the images their cohesion.
Primary interest in this book stems from Clark’s previous book Tulsa, the stuff of which reputations are made. Tulsa, a tightly edited, visually beautiful and coherent photo-poem about the life of teenage speed freaks in the 1960s, was an underground classic among photographers and made Clark a cult hero. Tulsa reads like a film: it is cinematic. Each image and placement of images is carefully thought out and consistent. From the cover photographs of the kid on the bed holding a gun, to the last limp image of preparing to shoot up, the book reads like a young outlaw’s chronicle of a particular subjective reality. At only one point in Tulsa does anyone look at the camera, and at that point it serves as a pause or interlude to the seamy drama taking place within the story.
Compared to Tulsa. Teenage Lust is a different kind of movie. It is episodic rather than a continuum,a visual chronology helped out by hindsight and wisdom. It is also more directly confrontational with the viewer,and somehow objective despite its personal nature. As autobiography, it reads as a photographic journey through the drug-crazed beginnings.
The placement and chronology of imagery as well as the scrapbook quality of parts of this book (newspaper articles, legal notices, snapshots and Polaroid images, words) make Clark’s experience somehow more tangible, further evidence offered up to us to prove an existence. The life it chronicles is involved in drugs, sex, voyeurism and jails, as well as other good clean fun. Combined with the powerful afterword, it is a book about self-discovery and maturation. By putting together this book of visual and verbal recollection that serves as an autobiography, Clark put himself in touch with the man in him, as well as an overview of the boy he was.
What follows is an interview I had with Larry Clark about his book and his new life:
EW: How did Teenage lust come about?
LC: I was in New York and I’d done the Tulsa book a couple of years earlier. A friend of mine said to me, “What are you going to do, sit around on your ass, sit around on your reputation?” and I said. “Yeah, that’s what I’m gonna do:’ And then it was like a real challenge. So over a weekend I went and I took all my other negatives and other prints that were left over from Tulsa and I put them together. I laid them down in a dummy and probably about a third of Teenage Lust was put down.
About four years ago I quit drinking. When I got out of the penitentiary, I cleaned up completely. I quit all drugs. During that period I had to keep busy so the Teenage Lust book was my personal work therapy to keep me okay because I was really in bad shape. It was like life or death. I really worked, and I got so involved in it that I was afraid I was going to die. I said, “If I’m going to die I’ll never get this book out.” There was about a year and a half that I wouldn’t fly. If I had to go to Chicago or something I would take a train.
Plus I got married three years ago and we have a son who is one year old. So I stopped drinking, I did two books. I got a kid and a wife-I really made major life changes.
EW: Why did you decide to have the text in Teenage Lust?
LC: Aperture had a contract with me for this book back when I first laid the dummy down. So I came to New York and I got with Aperture, with Michael Hoffman and Carol Kismaric. They were very enthusiastic about the book and wanted me to complete it and they wanted me to do a text. I didn’t want to do a text. I knew I would have to tell things I didn’t want to tell: I wasn’t interested in revealing this and talking about myself. But finally I did a text because the book was ready to be published and they said they wanted a text. We kind of had a Mexican standoff – we just looked at each other for a year. They wouldn’t publish it and I wouldn’t do a text. Finally I did it which really helped the book a lot, really made it into a book. I was against it, but once I did it, I saw that it had to be in there just the way it was.
It got very scary because once I’d done the text I really saw what the book was and I said, “How am I gonna put this out?” I knew that the image that I was projecting through the book, even though it was right, was going to upset a lot of people.
EW: It did.
LC: Me too.
EW: How come Aperture didn’t publish it?
LC: They eventually couldn’t publish it. Until twelve months prior to publication, for 3-1/2 years, Aperture gave me emotional support, they spent money, they spent quite a few thousand dollars (I don’t want to say how much but quite a few thousand bucks) on it. It kept me going. But it was a little too rough for them. So I did it myself.
EW: Did you design it yourself?
LC: I designed the whole book. I did everything myself. So the book is exactly like I want it to be.
EW: Were you on drugs when you were doing the text?
LC: No, I was straight. I tried to do a text six months earlier. I was still smoking weed, and it was terrible. I found out I had to quit smoking weed, which I’d never done. But to do the text I had to, so I quit and then I was totally clean and then I was able to do the text. It was done on like Perrier water.
EW: Teenage Lust seems more voyeuristic than Tulsa. I know there was somebody there in the front seat; I’m aware of somebody shooting these things.
LC: In the Tulsa book, you don’t know the photographer’s there as much as in Teenage lust where you’re aware of the photographer. There’s a technical answer to that. I realized it when I was laying out Tulsa: no one in Tulsa looks at the camera. One picture of one girl looks at the camera. One reason you get the feeling of how it started, how I was there: I was one of “the guys,” I was very close, and I was using a 50mm lens in the first half of the book and a 35mm lens in the second half, so I’m about this close to everybody. But no one looks at the camera. When I was laying out Tulsa. I found that to tell it the way I wanted to tell it, to get the feeling and to tell the truth, the pictures of the people looking at the camera had to be taken out. It just worked better that way. The pictures of the people looking at the camera screwed up the whole continuity, screwed up the feeling, changed everything. There are reasons for it, and when I did this book in 1971 I knew the reasons. Or I realize it now. I don’t remember. But as a student of how a book is done, there’s something to it.
I’m not explaining it well because I’ve forgotten why, but one reason this book works is because I did the dummy in different versions for myself. I took the pictures and moved them around, found the ones I had to throw away. The reason the book is good is that I realized I had to be ruthless and vicious in my editing. No matter how good the pictures were, if they didn’t work, they went out. So I was left with only picture that work. It’s very hard on your other pictures when you can’t use them. But I realized that if you can’t use them, you can’t use them, and that was one of my rules. Consequently, when I started the Teenage Lust book, I had all these pictures of people looking at the camera that I couldn’t use before. I was looking for a way to use those pictures. Just like I was saying, Here’s people looking at the camera that I couldn’t use, here’s pictures on weed, pictures on acid, whatever. I mean all those things went into it, and are part of book making. I think that there are photographers, millions of them, who can make photographs as good as I can but I think one of the main reasons why these books work is because I was ruthless in my editing. I used them for a purpose and I used them to say what I wanted to say.
EW: Teenage lust is really romantic. In comparison, Tulsa seems rough.
LC: I think it’s because the pictures are a little bit nice and pretty. I think that’s because I’m a good photographer and I’m trying to do that. I had fought with that a lot. In other words. as I said in the book you had to make the people look good. I was a baby photographer long ago and I think my early training, on being able to see people and see them at their best, influenced me. You can bring out their good features or you can eliminate their bad features if you’re good enough, if you’re watching for that and really care about showing the person like he or she would like to be shown. I think I’m able to do that with people. I couldn’t do it any other way. If someone has a big nose I’m not going to make it look bigger, it’s just a natural thing: I was trained that way. Being like a hotshot studio photographer who really makes people look good and being a street photographer is like being two photographers. Photographers may make people freakier than they are or accentuate the way people look; or maybe that’s the way people really do look, maybe the people don’t look like the way I make them look.
EW: I think people look the way you think they look. And if you’re ambivalent, then the photographs are ambivalent also.
LC: But it’s still hard to make them look like you think they look. You still have the negatives back in the darkroom and when you look at the prints, you say this is not the way I want them to look. So it’s hard to make them look the way you want them to look.
EW: Did you have an idea in your head for the cover? Were you looking for this image?
LC: I was looking for the situation. The image just happened. If you can get into the situation then the pictures will be there and then you gotta pick them out. But this just happened. We were driving back from the lake and it was happening in the back seat. I was pressed up against the windshield. This is the only frame I could get. It works. This is probably just about my best picture, photographically.
EW: What about the dog imagery? There’s a lot of dogs in here, like this one from Florida.
LC: It was my dog, a great dog, a baby retriever and I had to give the dog away. That was all. I had a girl friend once who saw that picture and she woke up one morning and said “I got it! You want to fuck your dog!” I said no, that’s not it. But it’s a sexy picture of a dog, that’s all it is. It was a picture taken on acid.
EW: Are all these pictures on acid?
LC: Some of them are. It was late in the 60s: everyone was doing acid. Plus we were putting paint all over ourselves and then laying out on big sheets of paper. At one time I was looking at the book technically as every photograph in the book is taken under the influence of some drug. Which doesn’t make you take better photographs or anything but it’s interesting to me that I was always fucked up. When I was taking all the pictures, there were speed pictures and acid pictures and downer pictures. and I was always drinking.
At one time I was thinking about putting the book into sections like that. During that time I started seeing myself and that’s how it became autobiography. All these little things through the years were resolved. I would think about these things and then look at my photographs and really analyze myself, trying to figure out where I was coming from, who I was, why I as taking these pictures, and then at the very end it all came out in the text. I was figuring out why I was really the kind of person I was.
EW: Do you feel that while you were high your camera could be your straight man?
LC: Right. It always gives you a reason for being there. People are out there doing all these things but they’re just out there doing them, they don’t have any reason. I mean I wouldn’t want to be doing them unless I had my camera. It’s very strange.
EW: How do you feel looking at those photographs now?
LC: Looking at my photographs now is a totally different experience than it was.
EW: Are you shocked inlooking back that you were such a crazy?
LC: Well, I don’t know what shocked means. Yeah, I guess so. Kind of. I mean, I would certainly do it differently.
EW: In 1968, I was a high school student in New York City. And that stuff was going on around me and I was affected by it, but not directly or confrontationally. But if I had been a man of twenty-five instead of a girl of fifteen, maybe I would have photographed the 60s.
LC: I always felt and still do feel that the people who were involved in it, like the sixteen year olds, if some how you could have made them good photographers, they would have done a better job of it. I did something different but if someone that was inside of it could have done it… of course that comes from the Tulsa book experience and being a photographer and recognizing that there was something going on that I could photograph.
EW: I wonder if that has to do with the ultimate fantasy of going back and photographing as a grown-up.
LC: I don’t think it did. I was still pretty young and pretty wild and crazy. I don’t think it affected much. The photographs are pretty natural. I was able to kind of fit into the scene because I’m from Oklahoma and I knew a lot of the kids from the time they were little kids on the street. I find the motivations interesting and strange. I wonder if one was analyzed early if they would be able to go out and make the photographs, or would that stop one from photographing? I wonder. Because I was psychologically analyzing myself in these photographs.
When I did the text I was obviously putting myself back to the age of the time that the things were happening. I was talking about it because I wanted to say what I felt then.
This text could have been totally different. I could have talked about my father like I understand now, like he’s just a guy out there, you know, the poor guy. In the text, I thought I should go back to how I felt through the years and forget about looking at it now, with sophistication and understanding. So that’s why some of it is cruel and rough. When I was talking about some of the violence I mean that’s how I felt. When you’re on drugs that’s how you feel. On the front page of the newspaper some kid says “Give me your bicycle”, then you get an eyewotness account: they were just standing talking for thirty seconds, it looked like he punched him in the chest, and then he ran away. Then they go over and see he was stabbed through the heart and he was dead,right? No one understands that, but I can understand it because when you’re on drugs you think you’re right. It’s like Billy the Kid and the Old West and Shootout at High Noon. You’re right and the other side is wrong. You see that every day in the papers. I understand why that’s going on.
You might have to be pretty hip to drugs and everything to understand. I think a lot of people understand the text, but then, a lot of people take it straight and think I’m a thug. I’ve always liked looking back and seeing how differently people see my work. There’s a kind of ambiguity in some of the work into which people can read their own story.
EW: Do you think that by photographing something like you did, that you fictionalized your past, fictionalized an idea or idealized something, so that it’s truth but not truth?
LC: I’ve thought about that, but no. I don’t think I have. All I’ve done is make people look good. It’s really hard for me to put it into words, because I’m not really articulate, I’m not a poet. I wish I was. But that’s a good question. You know, talking about these things, the drugs, the violence, the sex, and all that, I mean there was a lot of fun going on, but you know it might be hard for some of these people to accept this: that life is going on, it’s fun, it’s beautiful. And that all these other elements are in there. By showing it happening people can look at it and they just can’t dismiss it like a bunch of freaks, ’cause these are people, they look like people, they’re like other people. I think the way that you show the people has a lot to do with how others are going to take it.
EW: Tulsa seems a bit sleazy, the photographs are contrasty and the people look grainy.
LC: But the people on Tulsa still look good, I mean, you should have been there and seen what everybody really looked like.
EW: What about the girl with the black eye?
LC: I made her look great, let me tell you. Because I wouldn’t show anybody looking bad. I just wouldn’t do that. I mean what am I trying to do here! I don’t want to take advantage of anybody. I guess I do in a way, but there’s another element in there when you photograph sometimes – that rule. That you make people look good while they’re doing whatever they’re doing. If I photographed someone murdering someone right here, if it wasn’t a good photograph, if the people didn’t look just right, and if it wasn’t a good composition, I wouldn’t print the picture. I wouldn’t care about it. I wouldn’t let them publish it. Because the picture wouldn’t be any good.
EW: What are you doing now?
LC: Well, what I would like to do is make a film and I’m working on thos script, but I don’t know how to make a film. So I have a lot of anxiety and depression because I think that I would like to make movies. I think the reason the books work as stories is that they’re kind of cinematic in concept, because I really felt like I could be in a film. For the last six months I’ve been working on an idea for a film. Now I realize that I might make a film one day and maybe I won’t, but in the meantime I should probably do what I do best, and that’s try to do another book. I should try to find a way to express the ideas in a film. To do it in another book seems impossible to me because it really is a subject for the cinema. Maybe that’s the start of my project: I want to do a film and have to settle for a book. I’ll get it done.
EW: What about video!
LC: I’m like, you know, raised on Hollywood. I’m interested in the big screen, the 35mm and the whole thing. But I can see the process starting; I’ve been in the darkroom the last couple of days.
EW: What’s it going to be about?
LC: I would like to make something less autobiographical but I think in a way everything is.
EW: Do a lot of people interview you?
LC: No, not many. I’ve got a wife and kid now, so I can’t really be such a bum. I need to make some bread and butter. So there’s new pressures that are coming up. I’ve given a few talks, maybe one a year or one every two years. I turn them down because it’s just too uncomfortable to stand up there and talk about yourself. My problem is once I say it once, I don’t want to say it again. I don’t want to give the same lecture, so when I give one, I always make it different. I never plan. I just go in cold and start talking. Anyway, the point was that now I’ve got a kid who’s a year old and a wife and it’s really expensive in New York, so there’s all sorts of new pressures on me. All of a sudden, I’m forty-one years old and supposed to change. So you gotta have a credit card and you get all this shit. I never had a credit card until a year ago. People said ‘How’d you live all those years?’ I said, well, I just lived, it wasn’t important. I wasn’t worried about a house, I wasn’t worried about a car, I wasn’t worried about nothing. I was just out there. So I wonder what’s gonna become of me.
Now I’m in a crisis period again because I really want to do some work while I have people’s attention.
EW: How much of your past is with you now? How much of your ‘outlaw’ past is with the Larry Clark taking pictures in the world now?
LC: Well, there’s a lot of my past with me, but about being an outlaw – I’m retired now. This would be a great time for a great quote but I don’t have one. I don’t know. It’s a constant struggle.
Ellen Wallenstein is a photographer living in New York City and Sherman, Connecticut. She teaches Photography and Book Arts at the School of Visual Arts and Pratt Institute.
(Copyright @ 1984 Ellen Wallenstein)