Tulsa in northern Oklahoma is today the state’s second-largest city. Looking at its history, two noteworthy events stand out: the discovery of large oil fields at the end of the 19th century, which brought great prosperity to the city, and the racist attacks known as the “Tulsa race massacre” in 1921, in which more than 300 people, most of them Black, lost their lives. But Tulsa is also known beyond the state’s borders as the scene of the eponymous series of pictures by American photographer Larry Clark (*1943) published in the early 1970s.
In his book “Tulsa”, Clark documents with disturbing candour the excessive life he and his friends led in his home town in the 1960s. The adolescents spent most of their time together in an abandoned house, where, unsupervised, they drank, smoked, had sex, experimented with guns, and, above all, consumed hard drugs. Clark captured all this in black-and-white photos, close up, no holds barred, and from the perspective of someone who was in the midst of it all. Clark was not an observer, he was a participant. He had been a drug addict since the age of 16, shooting up amphetamines, which at the time were readily available for little money. He left Tulsa when he was 18, attended an art school for a while, then served in the army for two years, including in Vietnam. But during this period and in the following years, he was drawn back time and again to Tulsa and to drugs.
Clark initially took the photos for his private records, and it was not until later that he decided to publish them. The way they oscillate between an almost aggressive intimacy and at the same time an aloofness between the artist and his subjects, none of whom looks directly at the camera, jars. Clark’s photographic style makes the young people’s self-destructive acts seem shockingly casual and mundane. The fact that his gaze reveals no moral judgement, no emotion, not even compassion, makes the images even more disturbing.
It is therefore no surprise that when “Tulsa” came out in 1971, it caused a scandal. The photographs broke a taboo, because they brought home to conservative American society something that did not reconcile with its self-image at the time: the hard reality of a young generation that did not know what to do with their lives, and sought refuge in sex, drugs and violence. To this day, Clark’s series is considered an icon of photographic history, and a pioneering work in the field of autobiographical reportage, even if its reception is not without controversy. Its ambiguity in distinguishing between honesty and voyeurism is a strong point of criticism. And yet Clark’s images in “Tulsa” have lost none of their disconcerting intensity right up to the present day.
born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA
starts taking photos as an assistant in his mother's photo shop
1961 to 1963
studies photography at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee
1964 to 1966
serves in the military and takes part in the Vietnam War
first photo book "Tulsa" is published
lives in New York City, USA