Sex, drugs and skating are notorious themes in the work of photographer and film director Larry Clark. Since 1961, Clark has used his camera to capture the debauched realities of the teenage experience. He earned his reputation for documenting the lives of youth in the early 70s with the release of Tulsa, his controversial and iconic book of photographs taken during his drug-riddled adolescence in Oklahoma. In subsequent works such as his 1983 book Teenage Lust and his 1992 book The Perfect Childhood, Clark continued to document the beautifully bleak world of youth in American. Amid criticisms of his work being obscene and pornographic, his success only continued when he directed his first feature film Kids in 1995. The influential movie, written in collaboration with a young Harmony Korine, followed a group of teenagers as they fought and fucked their way through a summer day in New York City. Clark went on to make more incendiary films centered around adolescents, including Bully, Ken Park, Wassup Rockers and Marfa Girl.
Now, the photographer and filmmaker is taking to the internet to share his work. The 71-year-old artist has just launched a new webstore offering eight original T-shirts that feature photographs of the boys from his 2003 film Wassup Rockers, the semi-documentary on a group of Latino skaters in South Central, Los Angeles.
I called up Larry to talk about this new foray into fashion, the internet and his new movie, The Smell of Us.
Larry Clark signing the first run of T-shirts. Photo by Ana Dorado
VICE: How did your relationship develop with the guys from Wassup Rockers?
Larry Clark: They would tell me their life stories and I kept a diary. This continued for a year and a half. Every Saturday I would pick them up and take them skating. I wanted to make a film about these kids. When you see young Latino kids, you don’t see them the way they really are. The first half of the film was their stories. After I made the film, I just knew the kids so well, I kept photographing them.
You seem to have become especially close to Jonathan over the years?
I knew Jonathan was such a good model that he kind of became my muse. I have been photographing him and filming him for over ten years now. I have an incredible body of work with him. When he was 16, he was having issues with his parents, the kind of normal teenage battles. His mother called me and said, “Can Jonathan live with you?” Jonathan came and lived with me and concentrated on music and I photographed him. He has a band in LA called reVolt. He just turned 25-years-old. He is a very serious young musician.
How did you pick photos to use for the shirts?
I have so many photos, I could make 100 shirts. I used five that I took and Jonathan, who is a quite a good photographer, took two of the photographs. I was trying to stay away from the well-known photographs that I have made. I am not quite sure what I will do the next batch of shirts. I never did this before, but I did let Supreme make two skateboards and two shirts. I made a deal with them where I would get half of the skateboards, which I gave out to kids in South Central. Collectors bought up the ones that Supreme sold and you can find them on eBay for hundreds of dollars. It is kind of ridiculous. My board is all beat up and broken with stickers all over it.
Are you enjoying building your online presence?
Yeah. I am trying to keep up just like VICE is. I knew VICE when it was just a little giveaway magazine. It is interesting and fun. I started the website to put up a film that I made of Jonathan. I made another film two years ago, Marfa Girl, and the only way you could view the film was on my website.
What do you think about fashion designers appropriating the “dressing young” – tight-fitting, distressed menswear – that was seen in Wassup Rockers?
Ralph Lauren has a line now and it is all of these clothes that are sewn and ripped, with words on them and stuff. Fashion rips off everybody; they rip off fine art. It’s all about selling clothes, but they will rip off the artists in a hot jumping minute. It is just the way it is. What am I going to do?
You referred to your new movie, The Smell of Us, as the new Kids. Why?
It is about kids in Paris 18 to 20 years old. It is a very interesting film. I had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2010. I would be in the museum hanging my show and the museum would close. I would come in the back door,and I would have to walk through the back where all of these skaters were. It kind of reminded me of Washington Square Park in 1993. That is how it started referencing Kids.
Was the process of filming it similar?
As I make films, I always change things, make up things and I am open to any idea that I get. I am 71 years old, so it was very difficult for me. When I was 50 I could have shot it standing on my head. It was difficult physically for me to keep up. Something always goes wrong with every film you make, everything crashes and burns, but that’s when I am at my best. Then it is like a blank canvas, because if everything didn't go wrong, I wouldn’t be in that place. I threw the script away and made up half of it. This film is the most personal I have ever made because I had to finish the film on my own. I am in the film as Larry Clark and then I played two other characters when the actors didn’t show up.
What other characters did you play?
There was one character, a homeless bum ex-rockstar. I played him with a beard. Then there is a scene with foot fetishes. I had a very good actor to play the role, but he called and said his doctor wouldn't let him travel. He had a foot infection, of all things. So I shaved off my beard. I haven’t seen my face in twenty to thirty years. I cut my hair and dyed it. Just before the scene, I covered all of the mirrors and shaved my mustache. I didn’t know what I looked like at all. I didn’t know what to do, so I just did everything and anything with this kid's feet.
Was it shown at Cannes?
All of the producers thought this French film was a shoo-in at Cannes, because it is very well known, but it was rejected. Every one of my films has been rejected by Cannes. Somebody on the committee called the movie trash. Now this is the festival that wouldn’t show Ken Park, a film that was an enormous hit in Paris. It made all of its money back in France alone. Now they didn’t take The Smell of Us. They only took Kids because Harvey Weinstein had power that year. Pulp Fiction had won Cannes the year before, so he entered Kids. What an experience to see your first film on that huge screen... That was a highlight of my life. Calling The Smell of Us and Ken Park "trash" was kind of an honour too.
Why do you think they have that response to your films?
I don’t censor myself. I am just showing it like it is. Life is rough and it is not all happy endings. We all go through a lot and I am just showing it as I see it. I think a lot of people get upset with that. I think that film is at it’s best when it may not have anything to do with the audience but they recognise it as true life. Cassavetes was able to do that. I remember in Faces when the star is having sex with Seymour Cassel and you just know her husband is coming home early from the office and he wants to make love to her. Seymour jumps out the window and the husband looks at the wife and just says, “Why?” and she says “I don’t love you anymore.” We all know what that is like.
How do you feel about people calling your work controversial?
I think it's pretty amazing that even the Tulsa book that was shot in '62 and came out in '71 is still available and people buy it. People still find it dangerous and controversial. I think it’s good to still feel dangerous after all of these years. I don’t embrace the controversy; it just happens. I am just trying to show real life. All of my work throughout the years is about a small group of people who you wouldn’t know about otherwise. You wouldn’t know about my friends and I from Tulsa. You wouldn’t know about these kids in the ghetto of South Central. You wouldn’t know about the secret life of adolescents that adults aren’t allowed in. When Kids came out, people said it was just some old man’s fantasy: "That is not the way our kids are." Then all you had to do was read the newspaper for a few years and you saw that everything in Kids was happening in America. I am always a little early. Then the country catches up.
What else are you working on?
I just did a book for a clothing company in Japan called Wacko Maria. I agreed to photograph their clothes if they allowed the kids from Wassup Rockers to wear them. I am going down to Marfa, Texas, to shoot Marfa Girl 2 on the 1st of August. We will put that out in the traditional way. I have a big show at Luhring Augustine running from June to August. It is photographs and collages that have never been seen before. I just started painting in Paris last year. When I was filming, I couldn’t sleep and I can’t meditate, it's too boring for me, so I started painting. I'm going to show two or three paintings. The show takes off from my first photograph, which was a portrait of my best friend, Johnny Bridges in Oklahoma in '61. I photographed him with my mother’s Rolleiflex. I put it on the wall with a photograph that I took in Marfa of the star Adam Mediano, two years ago. It’s kind of the same photograph. It is kind of funny. It has this beautiful light coming through trees. The show takes off from my first portrait until today. I am working on that as we speak. I have been busy. I haven’t retired, even though some days I am so tired, I want to.
Larry Clark just launched his web store on LarryCark.com, which is selling a collection of four-colour silkscreen photograph T-shirts featuring the boys from Wassup Rockers. Each shirt has been made with the same supervised proof process Clark uses for his artwork and photographs. The first run is even signed by the man himself.
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