Larry Clark … 'It gives me pleasure to know my work is still dangerous after all.' Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
The one new piece in the latest exhibition from the photographer and film-maker Larry Clark is a typically ripe collage entitled I Want a Baby Before U Die. An extreme close-up of a woman's pubic hair, beneath which is visible the tattooed name "Larry", competes for our attention with images of guileless teenagers having sex. Elsewhere, newspaper reports of violent adolescent deaths jostle for space with pictures of buttocks caked in a substance one hopes is Nutella.
Oddly, there's also a cinema ticket for Harry Brown, 2009's British vigilante thriller. Its title character, like Clark, is a pensioner preoccupied with teenage delinquents. But, whereas Brown guns down thugs, Clark would be more likely to take them skateboarding and then snap them with their junk hanging out.
This exhibition, entitled What Do You Do for Fun?, is culled from a retrospective that opened in Paris last year to the sort of controversy without which nothing bearing Clark's name would feel authentic. The city's mayor banned under-18s from attending. "They tried to censor me – and in France!" splutters the 68-year-old, who is tall and stringy, with warm brown eyes, salt-and-pepper bristles, and hair swept back from his long, boney face.
The outcry helped him through a minor crisis of confidence, a feeling that his work was becoming obsolete now that any teen at any party could capture by phone the kind of scalding images that are his bread and butter. "No one knows anything about photography," he grumbles. "It should be about light and shadow and feeling. Look at porn: it's so ugly these days, people filming themselves doing it with their girlfriends." He sounds like a purist complaining about the inept hanging of an Old Master. "But then I do Paris and it's crazy time. So it gives me pleasure to know my work is still dangerous after all."
The intent, he says, was never to shock, but to be honest about what it means to be young. "All my work has been about small groups of people you wouldn't know about otherwise," he says, proudly. His influence on popular culture began 40 years ago with the publication of Tulsa, a photographic record of junkies in the Oklahoma town of his youth. The book opens with Clark's own declaration of addiction ("Once the needle goes in, it never comes out") and captures with chilling starkness the aimless smackhead existence: shooting up, goofing around with guns, having sex and shooting up again.
"Some people liked Tulsa because it was anti-drugs. Art scholars liked it. And girls in black motorcycle jackets wanted to fuck me. It was a complete sweep." But it wasn't until his 1995 debut film, Kids, about the drug-fuelled, sexed-up, cruelly violent lives of New York City teenagers, that Clark became a cause celebre beyond the art world. People tend now to think of him either as a sympathetic champion of marginalised youth, or as an old pervert whose brand of research – spending months gaining the trust of his street-punk subjects – might easily be confused with grooming.
How does he answer the criticism that it's unseemly for a man in his 50s, as he was when he shot Kids, to be filming teenagers in exposed states? "Someone in their teens should have made that film," he replies. "But someone that age couldn't have made it. They wouldn't have the perspective or clarity. They'd clean it up in certain ways."
'Most everyone's dead now'
What about the process of soliciting teenagers to participate in his work? The act of approaching young people with an invitation to take their picture would be a comical cliche if not for its overtones of paedophilia. But Clark, who has two adult children of his own, insists his approach is painstakingly responsible. "It usually takes a while for them to accept me. I'll meet their parents, talk things over."
Before making Wassup Rockers, his film about 14-year-old Latinos from LA, he spent many weekends hanging out with his subjects. "I took them skating. I'd listen to them, write down their stories." If Clark's work leaves some adults queasy, it's largely embraced by the young: he says the best compliment he ever received was from a boy who said of Kids: "That wasn't like a movie at all. That was like life."
This dogged pursuit of candour underpins some of the collages in the new show. Magazine pin-ups of teen idols are placed alongside brazen pornographic snapshots: it's the former – the industry-sanctioned posters of young boys showing off porcelain midriffs, or coquettishlyexposing a nipple – that come off worse. Clark challenges what he now calls "the Hollywood lie about teenagers" by juxtaposing screen grabs of the young Matt Dillon from Little Darlings with newspaper articles about adolescent deaths from auto-erotic asphyxiation.
This feeds into the exhibition's most arresting piece: an entire wall of 200 black-and-white prints, each showing the same rodent-like teenage model, genitals visible through his shorts as he strikes suicidal poses with a noose or a gun. This 1992 project heralded Clark's move away from the reportage of Tulsa and 1983's Teenage Lust, and towards fully staged photographs with a heightened narrative – what he now admits was a preamble to the second stage of his career, film.
He had wanted to be a director all along. Indeed, the exhibition includes previously unseen 16mm footage of the Tulsa crowd. Clark's voice cracks slightly when we pause before the flickering images. "Most everyone's dead now," he sighs. "Watching it again, my friends come to life for me."
In 1990, he saw Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant's tale of itinerant addicts. "I said to myself, 'This motherfucker's on my turf! I gotta make a film.' I'd been a drug addict alcoholic for so long, but Gus doing that picture made me get clean and rehabilitate my image so I could get the money to make my own film." Clark started hanging out in New York's Washington Square Park, befriending the teenagers and using their stories in the outline that 19-year-old Harmony Korine turned into a script. "The kids would wear these free condoms on a string round their necks," Clark recalls, "and they all gave me the safe-sex talk. But as they got to trust me, they started telling me the truth: 'I wouldn't use a fuckin' condom on a bet. Fuck that shit!'"
The "virgin surgeon", a predatory character in Kids who tries to avoid Aids by preying solely on virgins, was based on a boy Clark met. "Over a few months, I saw him seduce three different virgins. I said to him, 'What if one of 'em gets knocked up?' He said, 'It's not in the cards.'" As Clark talks, his belief in the moral purpose behind his work becomes apparent: it's all about casting off the comforting facade about teenagers, just as his earlier photographs tried to alert America to the drugs crisis brewing under its white-powdered nose. Clark's images are rarely pretty, even when his actors and models are. But he has no current equals in capturing the artless, distracted poetry of unselfconscious youth.
How Kids gave birth to Skins
"People were outraged by Kids. They said it was the fantasy of a dirty old man. But all you had to do was read the newspapers and you'd see it. I just got in there early. Same with Tulsa. I'd been taking drugs since the 1950s, so I saw drugs were bad, and when the hippy thing came around I already knew it was bullshit. Drugs were a shameful secret when I was a kid. Whatever happened to shame?"
If he didn't glamorise the junkie lifestyle, his aesthetic was appropriated by those who did. "They took my influence and used it to sell shit. Art is always co-opted by commerce." Even as he saw echoes of his photographs in the rise of "heroin chic" fashion journalism, he never capitalised on it himself. "I'm an artist," he shrugs. "I can't do commercial work. If I could, I'd be a zillionaire. I've been offered so much but it means nothing to me."
He's well aware of the impact his films have had, too. Skins, the British TV drama about hedonistic Bristol teens, is essentially Kids UK. Young film-makers still talk about Kids in reverential tones. "I love how frank and non-judgmental Clark is," Olly Blackburn, the director of Donkey Punch, once told me.
He has several scripts ready, but can't raise the money. "I could make a Hollywood film if I gave up control." Liar, his script about the youth scene spawned by Kids, was rejected by a cable channel. It features a film director called Larry Clark who is killed by one of his young actors. "He gets pushed off a roof," Clark grins. "And the last thing he does before he hits the ground is to take a photograph."
Larry Clark: What Do You Do For Fun? is at the Simon Lee Gallery, London W1, until 2 April. Details: 020-7491 0100
Larry Clark Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
The International Center of Photography (ICP) will present the first American retrospective of the work of Larry Clark, one of the most important and influential American photographers of the second half of the 20th century. The exhibition, "Larry Clark", will include the full spectrum of Clark's work, spanning five decades and as many media.
Beginning with his landmark book "Tulsa" (1971), Clark has produced an extraordinary range of photographs and films. Clark's work represents - probably better than any other photographer's - the important historical transition from the documentary-style photojournalism of the 1950s to the more personal and investigative photographic explorations of the 1970s and 1980s. His early black-and-white photography (Tulsa) is rooted in the era of W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, and Diane Arbus, and has influenced the work of later photographers such as Nan Goldin and Richard Prince and inspired such award-winning films as "Taxi Driver" by Martin Scorsese, "Rumble Fish" by Francis Ford Coppola and "Drugstore Cowboy" by Gus Van Sant. His recent independent feature films (such as "Kids", "Bully", and "Ken Park") show his continuing relevance for contemporary audiences.
Clark is known for his frank engagement with challenging subject matter. These subjects are an integral part of his explorations of various themes in American culture: the exploitation of teenagers in American mass media (teen idols as pinups and sex objects); the confusions created for teen viewers by images of intense violence and sexuality; the responsibility borne by adults, especially parents, for the problems faced by young people; and the double-edged and largely unexplored aspects of the construction of masculinity in American culture.
"ICP is committed to examining major currents in photography and has a long tradition of organizing exhibitions by artists whose work has been extremely influential, including Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Helmut Newton, Sebastião Salgado, Man Ray and Hans Bellmer," said ICP Director Willis Hartshorn. "Larry Clark has had a tremendous influence on the style and subject matter of at least two generations of photographers and filmmakers, and this retrospective provides the first opportunity for an American audience to examine the full scope of his work."
"Larry Clark" will bring together for the first time key works from Clark's career, illuminating the thematic and autobiographical threads that run through the artist's work. Filling almost the entire exhibition space at ICP, "Larry Clark" will present a comprehensive overview of the artist's work in photography, collage, video, bookmaking, and film. The original set of "Tulsa" photographs used to print the book will be exhibited, as will outtakes from "Tulsa" that have rarely been seen. All other major bodies of his photographic output will be presented, including the complete "Teenage Lust", color portraits of skater kids in New York City from the mid-1990s, and a 1996 return to Tulsa to document the now largely Southeast Asian and Latino subcultures of his hometown.
Also on view are a series of collages from 1989 to 1992 that include Clark's photographs combined with media images of teenagers, particularly those dealing with the intersection of teens and violence that both shock and fascinate the public. Two videos from 1992 feature clips from the Phil Donohue and Bryant Gumbel television programs that further explore the issues raised in the collages: the hypocritical public fascination with and condemnation of troubled teens. The exhibition will include a screening room in which several of Clark's most important films will be shown.
Larry Clark was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1943. His mother was a portrait photographer in Tulsa, and Clark worked in the family business, going door-to-door selling his mother's work. After high school, he studied photography at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1961-63), and then returned to Tulsa to photograph his circle of friends as they unselfcon-sciously lived their lives of drug use, violence, and sex before his camera. In 1971, these photographs were published in "Tulsa", a book that became a controversial classic for its unsparing yet non-judgmental portrait of his friends. In an interview with ARTForum in 1995, Clark said, "The one thing I wanted to do in "Tulsa" was cut through the bull... and tell the truth." Clark's next book, "Teenage Lust" (1983), is a loosely constructed autobiography told through family photographs, news clippings, and Clark's own photographs. He explores the theme of emerging masculinity in "1992" (1992) and "A Perfect Childhood" (1995), both of which focus on teenage boys, a population Clark felt was both "sexualized and demonized."
His collages and videos of the late 1980s and early 1990s broaden this investigation into revealing the ways that mass media alternately creates, rejects, and eroticizes young people. In 1995, Clark released his first feature film, "Kids", which premiered at that year's Sundance Film Festival and was hailed as "an instant classic" and "a wake-up call." "Kids" was followed up by "Another Day in Paradise" (1998), "Bully" (2001), "Teenage Caveman" (2001), and "Ken Park" (2002). He is currently at work on a new film. Clark's work is represented in the photography collections of nearly every major museum, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.
This exhibition and its related programs were made possible with support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the International Center of Photography Exhibitions Committee, the Elaine Dannheisser Foundation, and other individual donors.
Exhibition: March 11 - June 5, 2005
Opening hours: Tue-Thu 10 am - 6 pm, Fri 10 am - 8 pm, Sat/Sun 10 am - 6 pm