Originally published in 1971, Larry Clark’s debut photobook memorialized the ecstasy and ruin of drug addiction from the POV of a participant witness—an “anthropology of the near” which made history as a pictorial archive of 1960s counterculture. Half a century later, the aura that surrounded its creation continues in the dissemination of the book—a cult, collectible item passed hand-to-hand among photographers and artists.
Over the last half-century, few photo books have reached the level of public infamy and underground posterity as Larry Clark’s debut Tulsa, originally published by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press in 1971. The suburban Oklahoma photographer/filmmaker’s series of black and white images produced in the snapshot aesthetic of Robert Frank’s classic The Americans (1959) and Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank (1954) memorializes the initial ecstasies and inevitable ruin of drug addiction. However, unlike most of the photojournalists who confronted the post-War counterculture—including its sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll delinquencies—from the perspective of the outsider, Clark chose to document the activities of his closest friends as a subjective and participant witness, capturing moments of gun-wielding, brawling, stoned despair, sex, death and the louche routine of shooting amphetamine, a drug that had gained massive popularity throughout the 1960s.
The resulting fifty photographs sketch out this secret world of youth, both tender and violent, private and performative. Among the scant text in the photo book is a simple, three-sentence prologue that identifies Clark’s birthplace and chronic drug addiction: “I was born in Tulsa Oklahoma, in 1943, when I was sixteen I started shooting amphetamine. I shot with my friends everyday for three years and then left town but I’ve gone back through the years. once the needle goes in it never comes out./ L.C.” His words have the bitter flavor of a criminal confession and self-penned obituary.
Tulsa is divided into three distinct sections, corresponding to Clark’s periods of residence in the city and his involvement with its local drug scene. The book’s earliest photos are from 1963, and coincide with Clark’s return after two years of study at Layton School of Art in Wisconsin under the society photographer Walter Sheffer. In fact, he had been documenting the drug scene as early as 1959 when he began experimenting with Valo, an amphetamine-based nasal inhaler while attending the city’s Central High School. The second section, from the summer of 1968, consists of blurred stills taken with a Bolex 16mm film camera, which Clark had purchased with the intent of producing a short movie. By that time, the local drug trade was rife with more potent forms of amphetamine and pharmaceutical morphine, resulting in frequent police crackdowns. Clark ultimately departed for New York after several of his friends were either jailed or fled the city. The final series of photographs, by far the most disturbing in the collection, is dated from January 1971, before the book’s publication that fall.
Because Tulsa took nearly ten years to realize, it pointedly documents the evolving aesthetic and behavior of Clark’s subjects, and remains something of a pictorial archive of the decade and a countercultural history in miniature. Many of its recurring protagonists, including cover model Billy Mann, died before publication or were subsequently jailed. Clark was, himself, an exemplar and temporary casualty of this era—a stuttering and physically slight middle-class teenager whose artistic talents and beat aspirations were interrupted by a two-year deployment to the Vietnam War in 1964; while his drug addiction and increasingly volatile behavior led him to a nineteen-month prison sentence in the mid-1970s.
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