One could probably count on one hand the number of images in “OK: Jason Lee Photographs” that depict human beings.
Instead, the more than 180 individual photographs focus on the Oklahoma urban and rural landscape — homes and businesses that either appear to be abandoned, or that have already crumbled to ruins, engulfed by greenery.
Conversely, the photographs from Larry Clark’s iconic 1971 book, “Tulsa,” are about nothing but people — young men and women living on the edge of society, captured in cramped rooms that seem airless, as they play and pose with guns or insert hypodermic needles into their arms.
Philbrook Downtown opens these exhibits to the public Saturday, June 1.
“OK: Jason Lee Photographs” is the first museum show of work by Lee, a skateboarding pioneer turned actor who has been pursuing photography seriously for a decade, while “Larry Clark: Tulsa” marks the first time an Oklahoma museum has exhibited images from Clark’s iconic, influential 1971 book.
Philbrook commissioned Lee to create this exhibit, which involved Lee making several trips to the state between June and November 2018. Originally, the plan was for Lee to focus only on Tulsa, but the project expanded to include the entire state, with Lee driving along back roads and state highways to small towns and the outskirts of major cities.
The show offers no context for the images — they are identified only by numbers rather than titles. The few images that contain human beings present them as featureless figures dwarfed by their surroundings.
Rather, we see the efforts of human beings to make some sort of mark on these landscapes, as well as the inevitability of that mark being erased at some point in time.
Images that feature, for example, the BOK Tower, the CityPlex towers or the Devon Energy building in Oklahoma City have these structures in the distance, as if the wealth and progress and power they embody is far from the empty construction sites, the cracked city streets lined with ramshackle houses or the mud-brown water trickling around an abandoned tire.
Lee has a sharp sense of composition and an almost painterly eye for color, as evidenced in some of the images Lee made of the same location, first in summer, then in winter. The change of season — and with it the change in the light — result in images that appear so different that one has to seek out talismans such as street signs to reassurance oneself that this is the same place.
And one can’t help but get the feeling that a line from our state song — “We know we belong to the land” — may have influenced Lee in some way, with so many images of abandoned buildings surrounded by thick vegetation, as if the land was determined to reclaim spaces people had so foolishly sought to make their own.
There is little of the natural world in “Larry Clark: Tulsa.” The images in this series were taken over several years, from 1963 to 1971, and document people with whom Clark was friends.
That is what gives these images their intimacy, as well as a power that continues to disturb. The earliest photographs have a kind of innocence to them — you could imagine these kids running in the same circles as the characters in “The Outsiders.” But the subsequent images grow increasingly darker, claustrophobic, violent and sexual (some images contain male and female nudity).
And — strangely enough — more familiar. Clark’s “Tulsa” photographs have exerted a profound influence on contemporary art and film.
“Francis Ford Coppola used ‘Tulsa’ as a guide to create the look of ‘Rumble Fish,’ ” said Sienna Brown, Philbrook’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “It’s immediately apparent once you’ve seen these photographs and that film.”
Other filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Zant, have cited Clark’s “Tulsa” as an influence on films ranging from “Taxi Driver” to “Drugstore Cowboy.”
But nothing can duplicate or dilute the impact of these images, which remain as haunting and horrifying as they were when first published.