There’s a point in Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1971), about midway through, where the pictures stop abruptly, giving way to a page that’s blank save for an inscription: “Death is more perfect than life.” It’s a quote that I can conjure straight from memory without looking at a citation, partly because it’s shocking, partly because he’s right. Death is more perfect than life, formally, because it’s a final state like a finished work of art hanging in a museum, sapped of all spirit and dynamism, and symbolically, because of how we’ve come to associate mortality, in our flattened post-internet era, with the tragic promise of youth. It’s tempting to think of the cult of Kurt Cobain, his girlish, receding beauty immortalized forever in paintings by Elizabeth Peyton and the Tumblrs of people born after 1994. This is exactly what Clark is getting at with his book, which is why it takes place among friends, in a teenage wasteland of sex, drugs and more drugs, and not in an old folks home.
In the twenties, the formalist literary critic Viktor Shklovsky said that art was a means of experiencing the process of creativity, describing the outcome itself as “quite unimportant,” what he called its “artifact.” Clearly, he wasn’t looking at American photography of the seventies, eighties and nineties when he made this remark, which became the basic tenet of his theory of aesthetic estrangement. In Clark’s world, the artifact is all that matters. It is the proof that you were there, like the territorial markings of an animal or graffiti on the walls of a bathroom stall. Taking this logic to its conclusion, it’s also the mechanism that provides a moral alibi against accusations of exploitation and opportunism by establishing a sense of authenticity through the act of participation. Here we might recall the words of Ryan McGinley, who claimed he was merely an observer of human drama even as his photographs claimed otherwise with their promise of belonging to an omnivorous family of friends.
On the other hand, the creative process is played down in service of making the artifact—the photographs themselves—seem like an organic outcome. A guy holding a pistol. A pregnant woman getting high. A dead baby in a casket. Clark wants us to think that he stumbled upon all of these scenarios like he stumbled upon the device that took them, that the faint linearity of the narrative was unmitigated, not orchestrated, that there was no effort or planning in pulling it all together. To that end, he informs us at the start of the book that he began taking amphetamines as a teenager, presumably, to offset the doldrums of growing up in a place like Tulsa, Oklahoma. With this gesture he becomes not a photographer with a drug habit but a junky with a camera. His Wikipedia entry faithfully transcribes this detail, even through it appears in what is, by definition, a fictionalized account, Tulsa. Even the name sounds bland and flaxen, like a field of cattails in a Terrence Malick film. It’s an evocative title for an ambitious book, which is why Clark chose it in the first place.
But why tell us what we’re supposed to know already? A less cynical mind might interpret Clark’s textual interventions as being of a purely informative nature, but, taken together, it’s hard not to envision them as a kind of ideological defense or justification for his apartness. The extended metaphor of shooting (shooting up/shooting guns/shooting photos) does most of the work for him, but without the text to guide us, we might not infer that Clark is one of “them,” and not, say, a tourist, like Diane Arbus in Hell’s Kitchen or Susan Meiselas in Nicaragua. Clark, like Nan Goldin in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), sets up an ambience of liberal inclusiveness: promiscuous, heedless, nonjudgmental except in its suspicion of psychology and anything else which may be used to circumscribe the individualism of its hard-won affiliations. Of course, the nature of any community, even one advertising itself as democratic, is exclusivity, since democracy chips away at identity and a lack of identity spells death.
To be sure, Clark’s book came out in the darkest years of the Vietnam conflict, when the scale of the deception surrounding the war effort became apparent for the first time to a large contingent of the American public. Its redemptive power lies in the allegory struck between the “unavoidable” destruction of young lives overseas and their “avoidable” self-destruction at home, showing them to be identical, products of the same atmosphere of political corruption and cultural anomie. Goldin’s book, meanwhile, was released at the height of the Reagan administration, with its willful, even hostile, mishandling of the AIDS crisis. It stands as an unlikely monument to an unofficial history of suppression and sacrifice. These two events, the end of Vietnam and the emergence of AIDS, bookend America’s identity crisis, resulting in what Christopher Lasch has characterized as a mass retreat from politics into private domain of narcissistic hobbyism and self-help. The work of Clark and Goldin’s most immediate heirs, for example, McGinley or the talented young woman named Sandy Kim, dispense with anxiety in favor of a coolheaded apathy.
A lot of ink has been spilled on figuring depictions of “the Other” in the work of photographers as opposed as Meiselas and Arbus, but no one ever stops to look at either Clark or Goldin, who, by virtue of having chosen it, are just as removed from their subjects as anyone else in their profession. We might make the mistake of identifying critical detachment with exploitation and a lack of boundaries with authenticity, but history tells us that things are rarely so clear-cut. Clark and Goldin went on to become art world luminaries in New York because, even strung out on drugs, it was they who had the ingenuity to pick up a camera and document their respective milieus as subjects worthy of aesthetic contemplation. In their hands, photography becomes a survival strategy, alternately, a way of passing time in the present, commemorating people from the past and envisioning one’s own future potential. Recently, Clark has been hard at work on Marfa Girl (2012), a film that has all of the youthful debauchery of Kids (1995) but none of its courageous controversy. What the characters lack in context they more than make up for in bone structure. Clark has largely defined his reputation as an artist on “the outer limits of moral acceptability,” but what started out as an intellectual provocation has long calcified into an identity politic. As it were, people often mistake debauchery for courage.
But what became of their friends? Clark explains in the captions that most of them are dead. Sometimes, he even gives us a date. For instance, the man with the gun in the iconic cover image, which is repeated next to that auspicious comment on the nature of death, perished in 1979. Goldin is less explicit in this regard, but what she doesn’t divulge we can reconstruct from secondary sources. Cookie Mueller, a hilariously effacing actress, advice columnist and art critic, who like many of her subjects was a denizen of the East Village scene in the eighties, succumbed to AIDS in 1989, just seven weeks after her husband Vittorio Scarpati. At the funeral, Goldin snapped one of her last pictures of Mueller, looking gaunt and disoriented, beside Scarpati’s casket. The transgender dollmaker Greer Lankton, another subject, escaped AIDS but died of a drug overdose in 1996. Years later, Goldin mused, “It was only…after Cookie died and I put together the Cookie Portfolio (1990)—15 pictures taken over 13 years, with a text about our relationship—that I realized photographing couldn’t keep people alive.”
Goldin’s intuition has its basis in a longstanding superstitious belief that invests photography with animistic or talismanic properties. This is the secret impulse behind the popularity of photographic keepsakes such as lockets, snapshots and family albums, wherein a person’s miniature likeness comes to perform an almost Eucharistic function in relation to his physical being. The effigy-like quality of old photographs, though largely unintentional, only seems to play up to this reasoning.
But as Goldin was soon to learn, the photograph is less a token of good fortune than a harbinger of death. AIDS and drugs are interesting in this respect because they are perhaps the only two things endemic enough to lend the deaths of a great number of young people the particularly tragic dimension of preventability. These antiheroic subjects, we are meant to understand, partied hard and died young, but did so with profundity. The point here isn’t to criticize Clark or Goldin, who are both, if nothing else, pioneers of that particular aesthetic of visual flatness and moral neutrality that has come to define the look of contemporary art in the digital age. Neither is it to implicate the inherently exploitative nature of photography in general, which is a big topic that serves up no easy conclusions. It suffices to say that the purpose of myth is to downplay the agency of the artist in his own success by attributing it to certain external forces that are so far outside of his control as to be virtually supernatural or miraculous. The instinct for survival, as it works to reinforce this mythology, also works against it by being corporeal, common, in a word, mundane, and so it must be concealed.