Disarm – Larry Clark’s Jonathan Velasquez versus Annie Leibovitz’ Mariel Hemingway
Disarm you with a smile
And cut you like you want me to
Cut that little child
Inside of me and such a part of you
(Disarm – The Smashing Pumpkins)
The pose is identical. An adolescent is seen lying down against a neutral background. The upper body is naked and languorously stretched out. Both arms are casually folded behind the head. There is a hint of smile. The look in the eyes is simultaneously challenging and vulnerable. The pictures feel intimate: as if we are intruding on something personal, something private. We have been given this incredible privilege to gaze at these young people. What’s more, the subjects of these images bare themselves in more than one way. They have completely opened up to the photographer and by extension to the viewer. This is not just about them being naked. Many nude stills do not display the same intensity, intimacy and veracity as these two photographs do. By simply folding their arms behind their heads and looking straight into the camera, the main characters of these images have given up their potential to hide. They have signed away their chance to defend themselves, to fight back. They have been completely disarmed by the photographer. The result is that the viewer can see them in a way only their loved ones might have seen them otherwise.
As nearly identical as these two pictures may look, they have been produced by two wildly different photographers with completely opposite aims in mind. The image of Jonathan Velasquez by Larry Clark is part of a body of work, in which the photographer has followed Velasquez for a number of years to capture his transition from childhood to adulthood. The series also deals with Velasquez’ Latino identity: it shows him and his friends setting themselves apart from a mainstream and white youth culture by wearing tight clothes and adopting a punk attitude. Clark first met Velasquez by accident, whilst on a shoot in Los Angeles. Enraptured and slightly infatuated with him, Clark spent much time hanging out with the teenager and his friends to get to know them and to make them feel at ease with Clark documenting them. One result is the film Wassup Rockers, a semi-fictionalised account of Velasquez and his friends leaving their stomping ground of South Central to venture into the unfamiliar and dangerous territory of Beverly Hills. The film deals with the casual racism that Velasquez and his friends regularly encounter.
At the same time, by being frank about the existence of sex, drugs and violence in youth cultures, Clark has always been considered controversial.
Clark has always been interested in documenting teenagers and youth culture. It provides him with a way to relive and reconstruct his own youth, which by all standards seems to have been rather awful. Clark considers himself to be a visual anthropologist. He tries to be a true insider, not to produce a mere fly on the wall portrait. At the same time, by being frank about the existence of sex, drugs and violence in youth cultures, Clark has always been considered controversial. He has been called a voyeur, a pervert and worse. His work has been called pornographic and exploitative. It has been subjected to censure. However, compared to his earlier photo series of Tulsa and Teenage Lust, and his films Ken Park and Kids, this body of work seems remarkably good-natured and positive. This is perhaps because Clark uses colour photography instead of black and white, which provided such an uncomfortable edge to Tulsa and Teenage Lust. It probably also has to do with the sun-drenched Californian background of the early 2000s as opposed to small-town America of the 1960s and the ghettos of New York of the 1970s. And despite their occasional shenanigans, Velasquez and his crew seem to be quite decent kids overall. They are nothing like the egocentric tearaways of Kids nor do they find themselves in the netherworld of Tulsa and Teenage Lust.
Annie Leibovitz’ picture of the then budding young actress Mariel Hemingway also feels different to her more famous images. It was taken in her early days as a staff photographer for Vanity Fair. Leibovitz previously worked for Rolling Stone Magazine, where she initially adopted a fly on the wall approach and shot in black and white. Gradually she moved to staged portraits, the productions of which became increasingly complex and colourful. Leibovitz is now both renowned and reviled for her lavish, vibrant, elaborate and completely staged portraits of celebrities, be they film stars, politicians or musicians. She often starts with a particular concept in mind and regularly pays homage to well-known photographs or works of art. Leibovitz considers her portraits to be the end result of a collaboration between her and the subject. As a result her pictures tend to have elements that refer to the subject’s personal or professional background.
Like with so many images produced by Leibovitz, there is a whiff of controversy surrounding this portrait, because of Hemingway’s age and nudity.
This particular photograph of Hemingway seems quite simple and subdued for Leibovitz’ standards. Like with so many images produced by Leibovitz, there is a whiff of controversy surrounding this portrait, because of Hemingway’s age and nudity. And of course the picture refers to Hemingway’s breakthrough role in Manhattan, where she played the part of Allen’s teenage lover. This significantly alters our reading of the photograph. Despite Leibovitz’ tendency to research her subjects and to collaborate with them, I cannot imagine she spent anywhere near the same amount of time with Hemingway as Clark has with Velasquez. And I doubt that Leibovitz would have photographed Hemingway, if not for an assignment to portray an upcoming young actress who also happens to be a grandchild to the writer Ernest Hemingway. Clark on the other hand, chose to photograph Velasquez by virtue of his charm alone.
Despite these differences in approach and aims, the visual and other similarities between these two images are fascinating. There is the identical pose and the similar composition. There is the age difference between the photographer and the subject, although this will have been less pronounced between Hemingway and Leibovitz. There is the focus on a young adolescent by a photographer of the same gender. There is a hint of a controversy surrounding both portraits. And there is the stunning end result of two images capturing a particular and precious moment during adolescence when the main characters are on the threshold to adulthood.