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The Eternal Adolescent: Photographer and film maker Larry Clark discusses his latest project

Posted By Administration, Thursday, February 21, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

Larry Clark started his career in 1972. His first monograph of documentary photographs Tulsa, published that year, was released to a huge amount of controversy. The book documented Clark and his friends during their adolescence, and showed graphic scenes of drug use and under age sex. At the time this type of social documentary was relatively uncommon and provoked strong discussion and reactions. Tulsa went on to become a photographic cult classic propelling Clark's career.

Since then he has gone on to show in numerous international venues and now has work in several public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Pinakothek Der Moderne.

Clark works as both a photographer and film director, his 1995 feature film debut Kids winning the Independent Spirit Award in 1996, and claiming nominations for both a Golden Palm and Sundance prize.

The Art Newspaper: Your latest exhibition focuses on the teenage development of Jonathon Velasquez, the lead character from your film Wassup Rockers. How did you meet him?

Larry Clark: My film Ken Park was opening in Paris and Rebel magazine had asked me to take some photographs for an issue. Tiffany (Limos, Peaches in Wassup Rockers) and I went from NY to LA to do the pictures. The other kids from the film weren't around so I said 'well let's go find us some skater kids'.

We met a load in Venice Beach at this little skate park. They were from South Central and looked kind of out of place there, but really interesting. We went out the next day to meet them all and Jonathan showed up.

TAN: Jonathon wasn't a model or actor. What was it about him that struck you?

LC: He's just had all this charisma, just completely appealing. The editor of Rebel magazine was just fascinated by this kid, so was Tiffany, we all were. He's just one of those boys; women fall in love with him immediately.

During the screenings of Wassup Rockers, the film that Jonathon inspired, women would just gasp, 50 year old women would fall in love with this 14 year old boy. He's a man child.

TAN: You ended up photographing Jonathon for four years, from 14 to 18. How often did you meet him during that time?

LC: I would go every week, at least once a week and sometimes more. Then as I was writing and getting ready to make the film more and more. I saw him almost every day for quite a while. I've known him since July 2003 and I still see him now. I've actually written a second film for Jonathan that I hope to make soon.

TAN: How did he adapt to being photographed over that period?

LC: It was natural, it wasn't difficult at all. He got so used to it that in the end he became unaware of me. He's not a model and he's not an actor, which I think made him totally unselfconscious.

In fact now he's 18 all of a sudden he is self-conscious. After he saw himself on the screen 40 foot tall, and saw the pictures, now he's much harder to photograph.

TAN: Fourteen to eighteen is a key period in growing up. Were you conscious of the effect you may have had on him?

LC: The only effect I had would be to give these kids attention. I think something like this project really improves a sense of self worth. Jonathon met a lot of people, was taken all over California, Hollywood, out of South Central. His world in South Central was small, a few square blocks; it made the world much bigger.

I'm an old guy and I've been around, so I was always giving my life lessons, telling them about things, it turned into that sort of relationship. I don't want to use the word 'mentor' but it felt like that sometimes.

TAN: Pretty much all of your work, both film and photography, focuses on adolescence. What is it about that particular period in someone's development that interests you?

LC: It's the most interesting period in our lives; it's when we're formed. The things that happen to us at that age dictate what we're going to be like when we grow up. You can be badly scarred during that time and it can affect you for the rest of your life.

My adolescence was pretty messed up, but I documented that in my work. Now it has become fertile territory for me.

TAN: When you made your first book Tulsa you were the same age as the kids as you were photographing. As you've grown older the people you photograph have stayed the same age. Has their reaction to you changed?

LC: It is different now as I'm not one of the kids. For some reason though, I can still do this, everyone is always very honest with me.

I made a film called Impaled that was shown as part of Neville Wakefield's Destricted. During the making of that I was amazed how open everyone was. I guess it's because I'm purely interested in people, that's what it comes down to.

TAN: You move between stills and cinema often. Do you see yourself as a film maker or a photographer?

LC: Both. It's interesting because after I started making films - 10 years ago - it ruined making photographs for me, for a long time. I would look through a view finder and it wouldn't seem enough.

I felt like I should be making films because you see so much more.

When I met Jonathan I felt an opportunity to do something again with photography that I couldn't do with film. It brought me back to making photographs; it brought me back to where I started. He was the perfect subject for that.

TAN: The prints on show in Los Angeles 2003 - 2006 are large scale pigment prints, a move away from your usual documentary style of exhibition. What was it about these particular images that made you want to present them in this style?

LC: I wanted the viewer to really see Jonathan and get to know him.

The prints are really big. A lot of them are life size or bigger and the paper we used was incredibly thick, so we could really saturate the colour. It took us three years to find the process but it gave them an incredibly life-like feel.

TAN: You are represented by large blue chip galleries both here and in the US. How does it feel to be a part of that side of the art world?

LC: The art world came to me really. I thought if I was going to be a part of it I wanted to be in an art gallery with painters, sculptors and other artists. I didn't want to be in a photography gallery.

I joined Luhring Augustine just after they moved to SoHo in New York, at the beginning of 1989. At that time they had Christopher Wool and Richard Prince; I think I related more to other artists than other photographers.

I always felt photography was just a tool for me. I wanted to be a writer at first, then a filmmaker, a painter, I wanted to be anything. I just happened to have a camera so that became my tool.

TAN: Who buys your work?

LC: You'd have to ask the gallery!

TAN: So you're not in contact with your collectors?

LC: Well yeah, I meet some of them now. They're all kinds of people, regular every day people to big collectors.

TAN: Do you like being in large high profile collections?

LC: Yeah! I remember the first time I hung my work in a museum, I was thinking 'wow this is pretty crazy'. I never set out for this, I was just making photographs.

When I first started nobody bought photography, if somebody gave me $25 for a picture I would be thrilled. It was only in the 80s when collectors had everything they could buy, except photography, that the galleries opened up.

It never was, and still isn't, about making work to sell for me. It is just about making work I need to make.

By William Oliver
For The Art Newspaper

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