Oklahoma Dirty Realism – Why We Need Larry Clark Now
Jones Irwin on the romance of tragedy.
Some called it a devastating portrait of an American tragedy. Appropriately, the photographer’s first book came bound in black. We might rather refer to it as a statement of life—surprising, beautiful, cruel, thanatological. Existence, as Plato said of philosophy, is a preparation for death. On one page, there is a picture of a young man in his late teens, fondling a gun with the words “death is more perfect than life.” It is accompanied with a caption: “dead 1970.”
But if Larry Clark’s Tulsa is a tragedy—and it unequivocally is—then it is also a romance. The group of teens Clark hung with as a feral teenager in Oklahoma were sexy as hell, wild as the jungle, free as a dream. We fall in love with them as we see them rise and then fall; 1963, 1968, 1971. The last year, the year I was born, starts with obscene sex and ends with a baby in a coffin box. This is romance in Oklahoma.
Today, this Saturday April morning, 2020, I read that America is the new epicenter of Covid 19. It takes me back to one of the captions that mark the Tulsa photos: “Accidental Gunshot Wound.” A bearded man is supine on the bed, his trousers down to reveal his bloodied thigh. He resembles a disheveled Jesus portrait on one of the earlier room walls. He has crucified himself and soon, no doubt, his time will be up. His girlfriend faces away from him, crying hysterically with her head in her hands. She knows the end could be nigh. This is us today in 2020. Clark’s photography, in all its ruthless realism, is also a generalized indictment of a system and a humanity that would allow this to happen. As Clark would say, ‘Everytime punk, you’re gonna get the same.’
Jones Irwin is a philosopher and writer from Dublin, with an interest in the romance of tragedy.
Larry Clark was born in Tulsa in 1943. He worked in his family’s portrait business before studying photography at Layton School of Art in Wisconsin. He served in the military during the Vietnam War. He is 77.