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In 1971, when Larry Clark’s book Tulsa shocked America with the sex, amphetamines and violence of his suburban youth, publishing photographs of his friends’ antics was a brazen move. Nowadays Facebook and Vice magazine have changed that. We are used to flash shots of girls with their tits out and pubic triangles.
Clark is well endowed with celebrity status and sufficiently established to receive his first major show in Germany. The images from his early work, one suspects, have at least aged better than their subjects.
One of the most arresting shots from the start of the exhibition is of Clark’s friend Billy Mann, sitting topless and smirking on an unmade bed, posing with a gun: the title is “Dead 1970”. It is hard not to feel there is something odd about a retrospective of a photographer whose perpetual subject is a youth that is already lost. What the loosely chronological exhibition makes clear is the extent to which this innate nostalgia has defined Clark’s development.
After the gritty, graceful immediacy of Tulsa comes a selection from his even higher voltage Teenage Lust, in which Clark moved on from photographing his own cohort to the exploits of the next generation, “the kid brothers in the neighbourhood”, as Clark puts it, who skinny-dip, have orgies in the woods and shoot up just like his own friends did.
This book was originally subtitled “An Autobiography”, casting his subjects only as mannequins who re-enact the scenes of his own teenage hedonism, but it’s only half-convincing. Even in the tightly cropped shot of two teens fucking in the back of a car, you become aware that the shot is taken from the driver’s seat, almost as if Clark is taking his young protégés to school.
There follows something of a gap during the 1990s when Clark directed films like Kids, his notorious AIDS narrative. The exhibition picks up again with the collages juxtaposing images of 1980s teen heartthrobs like Corey Haim and Matt Dillon with more photos of erections and syringes, and news clippings of sex crimes and drug abuse. These are backed up with a few film clips of American talkshows dealing awkwardly with the same topics, but it is hard to know what Clark’s point is. That child stardom often ends badly? That America has double standards about sex?
The photos from Los Angeles are another story. Now working in colour and large format, Clark has been following around one gang of friends, but in particular one boy. His name is Jonathan Velasquez, he looks younger than the others, and has a prepubescent moustache and a big dick, of which we see a lot.
In the early series, we are never sure whether what we are seeing is an elegy to a particular scene, or a celebration of a timeless, lawless way of life; in the lingering, near-obsessive photos of Velasquez, the way of life goes on, but there is an older man’s vulnerability, an outsider feeling offsetting the in-crowd bravado.
Perhaps he is a sensationalist, pulling off the not very difficult trick of selling sex and drugs to America again and again. But you leave the exhibition feeling that Clark is starting to show something about innocence as well as experience.
LARRY CLARK, through Aug 12 | C/O Berlin