Life and careerClark was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He learned photography at an early age. His mother was an itinerant baby photographer, and Clark himself was enlisted in the family business from the age of 13.
In his mid-teens, Clark began injecting amphetamines with his friends in 1959. Always armed with a camera, from 1963 to 1971 Clark produced pictures of his drug-shooting coterie that have been described by critics as "exposing the reality of American suburban life at the fringe and for shattering long-held mythical conventions that drugs and violence were an experience solely indicative of the urban landscape."
Clark attended the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he studied under Walter Sheffer and Gerhard Bakker. In 1964 he moved to New York City to freelance but was drafted within two months to serve in the Vietnam War. His experiences there led him to publish the book Tulsa in 1971. It was a landmark work: a photo documentary illustrating his young friends' drug use in black and white. His follow-up was Teenage Lust (1983), an "autobiography" of his teen past through the images of others. It included his family photos, more teenage drug use, graphic pictures of teenage sexual activity, and young male hustlers in Times Square, New York City. Clark constructed a photographic essay titled "The Perfect Childhood" that examined the effect of media in youth culture. His photographs are part of public collections at several prestigious art museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In 1993, Clark directed Chris Isaak's music video "Solitary Man". This experience developed into an interest in directing. After publishing other photographic collections, Clark met Harmony Korine in New York and asked Korine to write the screenplay for his first feature film, Kids which was released to controversy and moderate critical acclaim in 1995. Clark is scheduled to direct the film adaption of Richelle Mead's novel Vampire Academy.
In 2002, Clark spent several hours in a police cell after punching and trying to strangle Hamish McAlpine, the head of Metro Tartan, the UK distributor for Ken Park. According to McAlpine, who was left with a broken nose, the incident arose from an argument about Israel and the Middle East, and he claims that he did not provoke Clark. The latter dismissed this version of events as "such bullshit, such a fucking lie," stating that McAlpine had described the September 11, 2001 attacks as "the best thing to have ever happened to America" and opined that child victims of terrorist attacks in Israel "fucking deserve to die." Clark later commented: "When someone gets up in my face with bullshit like this, I’m not gonna roll over and lick my nuts."
Clark is represented by Simon Lee Gallery in London and the Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York City. He has one son and one daughter.
FilmsClark's films often deal with seemingly lurid material but are told in a straightforward manner. Directors such as Gus Van Sant and Martin Scorsese have stated that they were influenced by Clark's early photography, according to Peter Biskind's book Down and Dirty Pictures.
In both his photographic and cinematic works, Clark pursues a set of related themes: the destructiveness of dysfunctional family relationships, masculinity and the roots of violence, religious intolerance and bigotry, the links between mass imagery and social behaviors, and the construction of identity and sexuality in adolescence.
Film critics who do not find social or artistic value in Clark's work have labeled his films obscene, exploitative and even borderline child pornography because of their frequent and explicit depictions of teenagers using drugs and having sex. In Kids, Clark's most widely known film to date, boys portrayed as being as young as 12 are shown to be casually drinking alcohol and using other drugs. The film received an NC-17 rating, and was later released without a rating when Disney bought Mirimax. Ken Park is a more sexually and violently graphic film than Kids, including a scene of autoerotic asphyxiation and ejaculation by an apparently underage male (although the actors are all 18 and older). As of 2008, it has not been widely released nor distributed in the United States.
Clark has won the top prizes at both the Cognac Festival du Film Policier (for Another Day in Paradise) and the Stockholm Film Festival (for Bully). He has also competed for the Golden Palm (Kids) and Golden Lion (Bully).
Ken ParkIn Australia, Ken Park was banned for its graphic sexual content, although many consider the ban to have been ineffectual. A protest screening held in response was immediately shut down by the police. Australian film critic Margaret Pomeranz, co-host of At the Movies, was almost arrested for screening the film at a hall.