Larry Clark’s Tulsa is one of those photography sets/books/exhibitions that everyone pretty much knows about and so I won’t go on an on about it. It launched Clark’s career and influenced a ton of movies and other photo projects. In it, Clark pretty much just photographed his friends, which wouldn’t be particularly remarkable, but for the fact that his friends were a bunch of speed freaks, happily shooting up in front of the camera in 1963, in front of a movie camera in 1968, and, somewhat more desperately and disastrously, once again in front of the camera in 1971.
Tulsa contains a ton of pictures of actual drug use—needles going into various veins—and suggestions of violence—guns, bruises, black eyes—that really weren’t much seen in polite discourse back then, or even now, really. I won’t be showing this book to my darling wife or neighbors, for example, and discouraged my mom from meeting me in Tulsa to see the show. Me? Well, I’m a bit hardened from my misspent youth, and it just looks like some of the people and places I knew in the 1990s and 2000s. Same houses, similar furnishings, similar cars, etc. But back in 1971, it was shocking, and, really, it remains shocking and moving, devastating, even for someone in deeply need of Allah’s mercy like me.
It starts out innocently enough: some friends, laughing, hanging around, going into the woods to hunt and/or just shoot guns. Then, all of a sudden, sorta out of nowhere, they start shooting speed. And not just once, but regularly, and that’s kinda all they do for about half of the book. At about 65% of the way through, there are a few pages of filmstrips to sort of demarcate things. Then, for the last few pages, it all goes downhill: one of the friends from the beginning dies, but we don’t see it; everyone really starts looking paranoid and a bit empty, vacant, hollowed out; the curtains are drawn; the needles are still in arms, but now with desperation and without the apparent joy and camaraderie that began the book. There’s suggestions of spousal abuse and then a picture of a heavily pregnant woman with a needle in her arm. And the book ends, more or less, and absolutely crushingly, with a funeral… for an infant.
I was aware of Tulsa for a long time, and hoped to buy a copy at the Philbrook when I went to see it (and Jason Lee’s Oklahoma pictures) back in… whenever it was,* but the Philbrook Downtown location didn’t seem to have a gift shop, and I sorta forgot about it. Somehow, for whatever reason, I remembered one day, and finally picked up a copy, and it’s everything I hoped for. And while I won’t be looking at every day or anything, there’s a reason it’s a classic.
Grove Press published a second edition of Tulsa in 2000 and I think it’s been in continuous production since. If I read the codes right, my copy was printed in 2021, during the 9th printing of the softcover version. New copies are easily obtainable, and used copies are C H E A P, as one generally expects of the half-handful of photobooks that everyone knows about. If you don’t have a copy, go get one.
Clark doesn’t seem have a website. His Instagram is maintained by the Damn Company, which closed their online shop at the beginning of 2022. While that’s a shame, I guess, it’s good for me, as no doubt I would’ve bought something during the writing of this…
*I’ve lost so much track of time thanks to government inaction at the beginning of the Covid epidemic. It was2019 just a few weeks ago, but somehow 2020, 2021? It’s now February 2022 and I have no idea when I did anything in the past 4 or 5 years.