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Life is the show: Diane Arbus & Larry Clark

Life is the show: Diane Arbus & Larry Clark “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells the less you know.”
– Diane Arbus

In 1958, back when she was a budding photojournalist and before she switched from 35mm to a square format, Diane Arbus captured the public, so to speak. In a photograph entitled “42nd St. Movie Theater Audience”, on view in one of the first rooms of the fascinating, expansive exhibition at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius Bau, single men, sparsely filling the upper floor balcony of a darkened, old-style cinema, languidly dangle their legs over the seats in front of them. The light of the projector cuts through the middle of the frame, gently and inconspicuously illuminating their movements. We can’t see what movie this is, but it doesn’t matter: here, unrehearsed life is the show.

There’s something sordid about the scene in “Audience”; the graininess of the image makes the air seem thick. Outside on 42nd Street—somewhere between Port Authority Bus Terminal and Times Square—it’s probably summer daytime, heat radiating from the dirty chewing gum-speckled sidewalk, legs in slacks and arms in leopard prints, cigarette butts, trash, secrets. None of this is in the photo, but at the same time it is. In Arbus’ oeuvre, the tiny but sharp details, like the beads of sweat on a transvestite’s brow (“A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966”), the clench of a little boy’s hand (“Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962”) or the Bomb Hanoi button on a young man’s lapel (“Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C. 1967”) are all infinitesimal snippets, opening scenarios, from the sprawling, confounding narrative that is New York City.

Though her subjects are to some extent on stage, in her photographs they do not perform. The everyday is exposed for how wildly exotic it actually is—and the exoticism comes from the most unlikely of places: honesty. The ease and unpretentiousness of Arbus’ gaze leaves the people be.

“Since I became a photographer I wished I could turn back the years, always wished I had a camera when I was a boy fucking in the backseat.” –Larry Clark

Larry Clark, who also has a monographic exhibition in Berlin at C/O, ventures even further “behind the scenes”. His approach is markedly more intimate, with photographs that scratch, paw and prick at the autobiographical. Starting out in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma and traversing New York City and Los Angeles over his 40-something year career, Clark documents all the horny young things he imagines he had been—or been in. Taken from his books Tulsa (1971), Teenage Lust (1983) and Perfect Childhood (1989-1992), the photographs ooze unbridled sexuality; every shade of penis is depicted from flaccid to erect.

Yet in Clark’s work all the graphic images of the teenagers turning each other on, shooting up and jerking off don’t add up to anything near exploitation, titillation or pornography. The trust and admiration that comes through in the photos exists because not only is Clark there, but he’s been there.

Perhaps in these days of Facebook and media over-saturation most humans have forgotten how to not pose—even when they’re off camera. The Arbus and Clark exhibitions tenderly hearken back to a time when the photographic portrait still hid more than it revealed. This is documentary photography at its finest. Or rather, it’s art.

Photographs (top to bottom):
Identical Twins, Roselle, N. J. (1967, Diane Arbus)
A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. (1966, Diane Arbus)
Jonathan Velasquez & Tiffany Limos (2003, Larry Clark)

Published July 11, 2012.