An anonymous half-naked teen lounges upright in a monotone sun lit room. Showing a nonchalant glaze in his eyes, he carelessly clutches, what could be, a loaded gun.
"Tulsa" was a revolutionary series of work that explored the contrast and tangible outcome of what it is to be born innocent and yet be surrounded with insanity. The publication ─ produced by famed photographer, Larry Clark ─ shed light on this journey through the lives of young people living within the small town of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Larry Clark became notorious for this groundbreaking series, which received tremendous acclaim. He became respected as a master. However, his body of work has gone well beyond just the release of Tulsa. He has since released many creative projects surrounding the use of both still-life photography and motion pictures. His latest is a film titled Marfa Girl and what now stands out as groundbreaking is not simply the content in his script, but rather the fact that he has remained so true to that vision first seen in 71' with 'Tulsa'.
Intrigued with his singular style we collaborated with Mr. Clark in the town of Marfa, a tiny west Texas town where James Dean’s last movie GIANT was filmed and the sculptor, Donald Judd, lived and worked. What follows is a discussion, which occurred in a Cadillac en route from Marfa to El Paso Airport, about Marfa Girl and his photography work to date.
I heard that you have come to Marfa 7 or 8 times already in the last year and a half. Do you remember when you first come to Marfa?
I first came to Marfa in 2011. My friend Christopher Wool, the painter, advised a very small film festival, “CINEMARFA”. He was going to show “No Wave” films from New York in the 70’s that were a reaction to the “New Wave” films from France in the 60’s. And I had just discovered this black and white film footage that I had shoot in 1968 in Tulsa, when I was doing my Tulsa book. I filmed all my friends, and I had about an hours worth of footage. But I had not dealt with it, nor really used it. Anyway, he asked me to bring this film and also show “WASSUP ROCKERS” and “KEN PARK”. So, when I was here showing “WASSUP ROCKERS”, the festival attracted art crowds, but locals really did not come. And when I looked at the audience, and introduced the film to older people in the art crowd, I said “Gee, this film is not really for them”. So when I start thinking about what I was going to say, it was almost like a miracle that these two 14 years old skate-kids skated by, Adam Mediano and his friend Ben, and I said “Wow”! I ran into the street and stopped them. “Hey Kids! Get in here, this film is about you”, so they came in, but they only stayed there about 10 minutes because they had to leave for supper. They came back at the end of the film and asked for dvd’s which I gave them.
That is when you met this kid, Adam Mediano, who is acting in the main role in your new movie, Marfa Girl.
Yes. And then I had opportunities to come back a couple months later to take some photographs. And I was just going to photograph the town. But I looked at this kid, Adam, because there is something about him. Some kind of charisma when I look at him, I knew the camera would like him. He has something. I don’t know, but I was just drawn to this kid. So I came back, and I found out where he lives, went to his house, and met his mother, and I decided to write a screenplay based around Marfa and about what I had seen here, and have him as the ingénue walking through the film.
What was he like in the first time you met him? And when and what inspired you to make a film?
Adam was 14, I was told he had a 28 year old girlfriend that was pregnant, and they are going to have a baby, and I said “what?” I could not imagine this guy has a 28 year old girlfriend, and they are going to have a baby, and he said his parents are fine with it. There is no abortion in this town, very Catholic and Christian. I said “Wow!” but it turned out the story is totally a lie. This kid does not have a 28 year old girlfriend, he did not even have a girlfriend, or maybe he had girlfriend, but someone in his age group. It was just not true at all. They were totally wrong. I don’t know, they were confused or something. But when they told me their story, I smelled the script, “Wow, man, I can do a film about this”. So I started writing a film. The idea was what if I had this kid Adam, he has an age appropriate girlfriend, somebody his age, and she gets pregnant. At the same time, he is having affair with older women in his neighborhood, and she gets pregnant. And this kids going to 10th grade with two babies one in each arm. And that was the idea that sparked the inspiration for this movie.
And then, what happened next? When did you start filming?
The film happened really quickly, I started making the film 9 months later. We actually filmed on Adam’s 16th birthday. So I wrote that into the script. The kids were all locals and first time actors from Marfa and everybody else was professional, actors I found in Austin, like the boarder patrol officers, Donna etc. It’s like what I did in KEN PARK, I mixed real kids with professional actors.
There must be a reason, why you casted locals. Maybe because they look more real, which is something you cannot make happen with actors. Are there a lot of improvisations or do you like to go along with what’s in your script?
I always thought that the way we are as adults has a lot to do with the way we grow up. What happens then kind of dictates what we are going to be like when we are adults. So I wanted to contrive in the story in this film, a way to have everybody tell their backstories. We went along with the script, but we also kind of made it up as we went along. And I collaborate with my actors, so if things are not working we are going to figure it out. And I will talk to the actors about their own stories, so sometimes I incorporate some of that into the film. Marfa Girl talks about what happens to us when we are young, when we are children, adolescents, what happens to us, how we are raised and what forms us as adults. Everybody tells about their backstory, Marfa girl talks about her childhood and her parents. Tom talks about his parents and his childhood, Rodrigo and Ulysses, everybody talks about how they are raised, you know. And it informs you maybe why they are acting like this, when they are adults. That was one big idea, and the other idea was to have the character of Adam, he is innocent, and he learns by everything that happens around him. Like one of the boarder patrol officers, Ulysses had been in the Army and had been in Iraq, and done two tours in the army. And I talked to him about that. And I want him to talk about that. I knew some details but not all. So I didn’t want him to tell me too much. So during the scene with Marfa girl, he is talking about the Army, I stopped him during the scene, and told him, “I want you to talk about what your reactions were to Iraqis, with local people”. And I expected an anti-muslim rant, and I thought it would be super racist, but he said opposite, it was just amazing he was speaking from the heart. Because it was so real, and he told us the true story. That he said he was brainwashed by propaganda about these evil people, he said they were just people, people just trying to survive like anybody else and I was surprised, this is such a real moment in the film, it is real, it is true, and the best moments of cinema are when they are real and when the audience can relate personally to what they are saying and it makes sense, and it’s not made up.
What about music? The music is such an important part of your film., like “Wassup Rockers”, you used all local punk rock garage bands from the ghetto. In Marfa Girl, there are some crazy electrical sounds that give great tension to the movie.
For WASSUP ROCKERS, all the bands lived within 2 or 3 blocks from Kiko and Jonathan [the stars of the film]. I always pick the soundtrack myself, but I’ve worked with music supervisors, the best guy is Howard Paar from LA, we did “ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE” together. But for Marfa Girl, I wanted to use this band “SOLID WASTE”, which is a punk rock band because I wanted to use Eric, the drummer, and Richard, the bass player and singer in the band. But the band broke up while I was writing, while I was preparing the film. So I ended up using Richard and Eric to make up a band, and I also used Jesse who plays the Kaoss pad; I put him in the film, and I asked him to do the soundtrack. He stays up all night on his computer making his music, he composes it based on the sounds of video games. So he made this music for us, and he ended up scoring the film, which was wonderful. And I wanted to use the music kids are actually listening to, and local music.
Aside from the music composers, I heard you also hired a young crew for “Marfa Girl”. How did this shape your approach to the production?
Basically every morning I woke up at 5am in the morning, and I wrote for 2 hours and I also wrote the film as we went along. I never had so much fun in my life, because my idea was, to hell with structure, to hell with rules, and to hell with writing rules. I am only going to put in this film what comes to my mind and what I like. I was flying by the seat of my pants. I actually made up the film as I made it.
Maybe it was my first time to use a Laptop to pay for watching a new released movie. What are peoples’ reaction to it? You don’t plan to release in the theater, do you?
No, because there are no theaters left. Everything is digital, all theaters in New York, had to switch to digital, and it is expensive to make that change, so small independent theaters cannot afford it. So they are going out of business. And Art Theaters, there are only a couple of them left. And I always have trouble getting a rating, because of censorship and MPAA. The MPAA is a Hollywood studio organization, it’s not government censorship, but they make Hollywood movies, and make Hollywood ratings. They pick on independent films, so they can censor me. This is bullshit. They would not give KIDS a rating. I was very careful of making the film so that they would not give KIDS an X or NC-17 rating so we remained unrated. This is bullshit. And they pick on me especially. So I am just not going to deal with it. Every person I know up to 35 years old now, watches all the films and TV on their computer, they download media on their laptop. And they watch at their leisure. So I am going straight to the people, by using larryclark.com. This was my first idea to make a film for the Internet, and to cut out all of the Hollywood crooks.
It must be quite a while since the last time you used black and white film.
You know I always shot with black and white, I start shooting color in the 90’s when I started shooting skate kids. Because I had been in a dark room since I was teenager, I was sick of the dark room. I had to get out of the dark room, so I switched to the color photography, because if you shoot with color, you can take it to the drug store and 24 hours later, you can get little prints. So it was not really an aesthetic choice, I was just sick of being in a dark room, and you see in color anyway.
Why did you start shooting in digital?
Because with the Leica M9, it is so easy. And there is no place to get your film developed, well maybe there are couple places in New York that will do it. But it costs 40 dollars per roll, and takes a week. Leica made the M9, so I tried it out and I liked it. But the first time I used it was when I came to Marfa and I started shooting Adam. It was amazing, I love the camera. I started using it a year and the half ago. And now you guys having me shooting black and white film, it’s old school. But it was interesting yesterday, that took me back to photographing Tulsa in 1962-71. It put me back to that time, because I was in my hotel room, it was cold outside and it was just light bulbs, you know. It is natural light, which is the way I did it in Tulsa, because Tulsa was not set up, it was documentary, there were no large lights except for these light bulbs, and if you look at Tulsa, you will see I included all the light bulbs. I am always shooting against the light. So you see the light, you see the light source, you see the window, you see where the light comes from.
Do you think photography has changed?
Photography for me has changed now. You know, now everybody is a photographer, but nobody thinks about light, they use fucking flash on a camera. Do you know the worst photographer in the world? We actually are quite friendly, Terry Richardson. Terrible! Horrible! He could not take a picture that depended on lighting. Sucks! His father, Bob Richardson was a fashion photographer, there is a really good picture that Bob took of me on my website, and I knew Bob a bit before he passed away. But he used to tell Terry he was a bad photographer. So now I do it, taking on Bob’s role. So Terry thought when his father passed away, maybe it was over but it’s not over, because every time I see Terry I say, “You are bad, you suck” Because he takes pictures with flash on his camera, and against your face and click, and click and click, and says “Wonderful, wonderful” “that’s great! That’s great!” but I never moved an inch. He photographed me for INTERVIEW, and I really did not want this guy to photograph me, but I agreed to do it. I went and they had racks of clothes, but I wore a black suit and tie, and I never changed my expression, yet he took a million pictures of me. I was determined to control the picture. So I looked at him, and he tried everything he could to get me laughing but I would do nothing. He stood in front of me, and he’s even got his assistant changing cards for him, but I never moved, I never changed expression. I gave him a good picture, but he still is the worst. Because photography to me, is about light and feeling, and you can do so much with that. With the flash on, the camera straight in your face, it does nothing. It wipes out everything. It is good sometimes, you know, paparazzi kind of pictures of the moment.
And these days, the value of a photograph is raising so much. And most art photographers shift their career to be a fashion photographer and to do campaigns to make money. It is pretty rare to find people like you, who are not a “sell out”.
Nowadays “selling out” is a whole other thing, everybody is selling out. I came out right after the generation of Beatniks, the Beatniks whole thing was about not selling out, not going to Madison avenue, so I got influenced by that, NOT selling out. Now people cannot wait to be a sell-out. These first-time filmmakers make these great, wonderful, autobiographical films, and they’re very popular and awarded at Sundance, etc. And the first thing they do is sell-out in Hollywood. They give up their final cut, and make shit movies and make tons of money and I cannot understand how they could be happy. I have never sold out, and I never will. And I do not do any commercial photographs. I do not do any campaigns. [I had] lots of dollars offered for campaigns, and I laughed at them, “fuck you”. I am not going to do that. So, I guess I am an artist, because I have always felt the reason I am here is to make work, and I only care about making work, and making art. I am always moving forward, doing new work. And as I do new work, people don’t get it, they think, “what the fuck is Larry is doing?” They don’t get it, but they will get it, they will catch up, I am always ahead.
Even when we had breakfast at the restaurant near our hotel, there are a lot of people asking you for handshakes and a chat. Do you see yourself as a famous artist?
I kind of am now. I never thought about that, I was an artist for many years. I have always been about never looking at the past, but always moving forward; the secret of the happy life is to move forward. You know, I always live in the present, and I never look back on my own work, but you got me thinking of Tulsa, this is kind of fun. But I never lived in the past, I am always thinking about the future. What I am doing now is the most important. And I am always saying this because I became very well known in 1971, when Tulsa book came out but I used to say, “I [was] not going to live on my ass”, which means living on your reputation. Because I have seen so many artists living on their reputation, and repeat themselves, and use a formula, and doing the same thing for the rest of their life. But that is not for me, I am going to move on, I am always following my instincts, doing what I want to do, and I do not care what other people think. After I did Tulsa, a lot of people wanted me to do the same thing but I always move forward, and every film I make is different.
But you did a great retrospective show in Paris in 2010. How did your emotions change?
I feel now at this point in my life it’s a really interesting thing to do. I did not really care about this until now. But now I look at it and it’s so historic for me, because mostly everybody is dead, only a couple of us are alive. I keep in contact with my friends from Tulsa, but there’s only one or two that are still alive that are around my age.
The mayor in Paris censored some of your photographs, how did you feel about that?
All the work that they wanted to censor had been shown here numerous times. It makes me happy to know the work I did in the 60’s is still considered dangerous.
Also, you started making collages. Why?
Because I am story-teller. I started making collages with my photographs, mixed media, skateboard magazines and newspaper articles -- all photographs and images from different kinds of media. It’s just a different way to tell a story, more complicated, abstract. Also it turned out that it was good preparation for making films.
Like the kids we shot yesterday, Adam Mediano and Mercedes Maxwell from Marfa Girl, or Jonathan from “WASSUP ROCKERS”, I am amazed that you kept your relationships between kids from each film.
Because I care about them, I do not want to be someone who exposes them and walks away. I stay with them, and try to help them with whatever they want to do. I still see Leo Fitzpatrick, and Chloe Sevigny and we worked together in 1994 with KIDS.
Why do they attract you so much?
Somebody has to do it. And I’m good at this. Also I like kids. My first book, Tulsa, was about my adolescence. I had a very rough adolescence, it was not a happy time, so it’s interesting for me to see the different ways that kids grow up.
Have you ever wanted to go back to your teenage years again?
I don’t really think about that. I don’t really fantasize that way. But it is interesting for me to see how teenagers live, and grow up, what’s going on with all different kinds of kids, and you see that in my work. That is interesting for me. So I’m having a good time now.
Do you think all kids are different from each era?
Well, the world is different now. The kids are innocent but the kids have always been innocent, they all have experiences that are not so different. These kids are smart and they can access all the knowledge through the internet.
You talk like one of kids in the shooting, and you always eat lunch with the kids. They seem really comfortable to be photographed by you.
They trust me and I trust them. And I am interested in them and they can tell. It is all about trust. They know I’m okay and I’m cool. I told you a story by Bob Richardson, Terry’s father, and once he told me “Larry, do you know why you can make these films? Why you can do “KIDS”, why you can do this? Because you are cool. If you were not cool, you could not get within a mile of these kids.” I said, “Wow”. And it’s probably true, because I do care and I’m interested and I’m okay.
Because you can get so close to kids, you are able to show real stories and real emotions. Sometimes it scares and shocks people.
I don’t like to do things to be nice, because life is not so nice. Life is not so cut and dry, like in Hollywood movies, like 3 act plays, with a beginning, middle and end, that turn out okay in the end. That is not life. Life is very messy, so I am trying to show life as it is, and life as I know it, I am not trying to shock people, I am just trying to show reality.
I think real artists like you are so special that they can do whatever they want to do. Of course they cannot hurt people or kill people. But do you think that art should have boundaries?
No, if you are an artist you can do anything what you want to do. There are no boundaries. But I never think of rules, I never think of what you cannot do. That is why I do not do commercial photography, because they cannot do both. People who are working in commercial photography, and trying to make art, their minds are fucked up because of the rules. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen a lot of people who were free and they started doing commercial work and they are all tied up with these rules now. The rules pop into your head and you can’t do that, you can’t make art like that.
Do you still remember the time that you wanted to be an artist? To be a storyteller?
It was from Tulsa, I was forced to help my mother with taking photography for her baby photograph business. It was a miserable time for me, I did not enjoy it at all. I felt photography was all about making baby pictures, using Rolleiflex with a strobe, but I knew that I had to get away from Oklahoma. So I went out to Milwaukee to attend photography school, at Layton School of Art. I started to hang out with artists, sculptors and painters. As I hung out with artists, I realized that I had a secret life in Oklahoma. It was a big secret in the 50’s. No one knew about it and I had never seen any document or photographs of it. Back then you could only show so much, everybody would pull the punches. But I said why not? This is my life, I have seen this going on, so I made pictures of my friends and secret life and this is when I started. This is when I realized that I could use photography for self expression. I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a painter, or sculptor, anything but a photographer. I wanted to be a filmmaker too, but I had a still camera in my hand, so I used what I had. I have never really considered myself as photographer so much, I just used photography, I just used my camera. That’s how it started.
Why didn’t you bring any assistants for this shooting? You really worked hard by yourself.
Because I like to do it by myself and I do not trust anybody with the camera. I do not need anybody, I do not need anybody to bother me, I wanted to do it by myself. If there is available light, that’s all I need.
Is it the same when you shoot for movies? Do you want to work with the least amount of people to make an intimate situation?
Yes, I want to make a film with the least amount of people, and I generally close the set, so there is no one there, except me and the actors. I make everyone wait in the hallway. I do not look at the video monitor. I am just there close to the actors and working with them. I keep it very quiet and friendly on the set with no yelling or screaming. Just a really intimate closed set.
Have you ever shoot with a large format camera?
You know I have an 11x14 camera, and I just bought 250 sheets of black and white film for it. I am going to go “old school”. But I have to have an assistant for this. It’s very difficult. I bought a wooden handmade 11x14 camera, there is one guy who still makes it in New England. So I am going to make portraits and contact 11x14 prints. It is completely opposite of what I am shooting in digital now. I am going backward. I always wanted to do that. New Portraits! I really want the contact 11x14 print, it is very beautiful.
Do you crop your images?
Not generally but I will. Sometimes you do what you have to do. Maybe you are talking about early images from Tulsa when I was starting. In the Tulsa book, there was a lot of cropping. Which was okay, I was only interested in the subject. I cut everything else out. But I do not have to crop now. But if I had to I would. Usually I can do it with my camera, not in post-production. My basic photography lesson is you take the camera, then make the best composition you can, and step forward. Because that screws everything up. Because it keeps you from getting compositions that are “too perfect”. I was always saying that I learn more from painters than photographers. Photographers tend to be “too perfect”; the frames are too perfect and too clean. You see paintings, they cut off your arms, your bottoms, they cut off the place you never think about cutting. I try to do that in my photography. If you step forward, it will screw everything up a bit, and the composition seems more real. Because you are not standing in the back and seeing everything framed perfectly. You are there. That is my lesson, that is all you need to know.
What do you think your role is as an artist?
I cut out my own territory. It’s my territory. I think it’s just to try and make work that reflects real life. The way real life is. That is what I’m trying to do. I try to be honest, honest with people, and make honest work.