In 2018, after 25 years as a fashion photographer, Berlin-born New Yorker Clarence Klingebeil was taking the best pictures of his career. Roommate and skateboard pro John Grigley had just granted him access to the skating community in the city, and Clarence — known professionally as Clarence K — had begun work on his portrait series, ‘Skate-Homies’.
He was feeling grateful for his life and his work, and that was showing in his art. Clarence says, “For the first time in my long career. I felt like I was taking the photographs that I’ve always wanted to take.”
The previous year, Clarence, at age 56, had overcome stage 4 throat cancer caused by HPV — similar to the condition battled by actor Michael Douglas. In 2016, while shaving, he noticed a pliable ping pong sized growth on his neck. He immediately consulted a doctor and was relieved when a soft needle biopsy confirmed that it was benign. Soon after, it disappeared and he paid it little further thought.
However, a year later, in November 2017, the growth reappeared and a surgical biopsy revealed numerous cancerous lymph nodes. He was diagnosed with malignant squamous cell carcinoma on the base of his tongue. Although both Douglas and Clarence were at one time heavy smokers and drinkers, which most people associate with causing throat cancer, there’s a variant that is increasingly diagnosed as being sexually contracted. The good news is that there is an 80% treatment response for this type of cancer.
So in February of 2018, Clarence began a rigorous treatment at Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York (with the same radiation oncologist as the Wall Street star, Nancy Lee, MD). Clarence recalls, “This consisted of three rounds of cisplatin, a particularly unpleasant form of chemotherapy, combined with 35 simultaneous radiation treatments, the most a human body can tolerate…it was no picnic!”
His treatment seemed to be successful, and he slowly began to regain his strength, and add some much needed weight. He spent the remainder of 2018 convalescing, as follow up tests confirmed that the tumor had indeed disappeared.
“I was amazed and deeply humbled by the degree to which friends, family and acquaintances showed their support,” he says. “A GoFundMe account was established that covered most medical expenses, the occurring bills, and the cost of living during my treatment. It really floored me to see how many people stepped up to the plate. Very humbling.”
Life seemed to be getting back to normal towards the end of the year. Clarence resumed work for magazines and advertising — his career has seen him shoot for W Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Neiman Marcus and more — and was feeling thankful that he’d dodged a bullet.
But life rarely follows a linear path. No matter how prepared we think we are for the world, or how many bumps in the road we have previously overcome, there will always be inexplicable twists that will take us by surprise, sometimes brutal and unforeseen, that can either destroy or define us.
For Clarence, that next life-changing challenge came on December 29, 2018, when he suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed in the kitchen of his apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Fortunately his roommate was home, heard the fall, and called 911. It took paramedics 45 minutes and nine shocks to his chest to revive him and stabilize his heartbeat. He was transported to the nearest hospital where they intervened to lower his body temperature before transporting him to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where they operated and put him into an induced medical coma which he remained in for five days, with his family and friends, including his ex-wife, photographer Tamara Schlesinger, and daughter, Tallulah, at his bedside. When he finally emerged from his coma lucid, without brain damage, his loved-ones were obviously hugely relieved. But the bad news was that the doctors had discovered a blood clot in his shoulder which had obstructed the blood flow so severely it meant they would have to amputate his dominant right arm.
Clarence remained in hospital for almost three months more, with the surgical site slow to heal and prone to infection, resulting in several additional operations. Once again his resolve was tested, as it had been by the cancer just one year previously.
“When I had the cancer, there were moments that when I was at home, alone, it overwhelmed me.” he recalls. “I would sit crying, not often, but there was once or twice, where I had a bit of a breakdown. It was just too much to handle. But with the next thing [the cardiac arrest and amputation], that didn’t happen. I somehow didn’t allow it to get me down as much as the cancer did.”
Obviously going through such ordeals was traumatizing for Clarence, for his family and friends, and most certainly for his daughter Tallulah, now 20 years old.
He says, “I know that both my cancer and the following cardiac arrest put a tremendous strain on both my daughter and my ex-wife. Their support was immeasurable. I can’t imagine what they must have gone through.”
Within two months of leaving hospital, Clarence was back to work at the skateparks in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Once a purist — a film-or-nothing ambassador — he adapted to continue the project he had held so dear before his heart attack.
“Ironically, I was kind of saved by the digital revolution,” he says. “Film would have been tricky. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I could still shoot hand held. The first time I went to shoot, I had a tripod and had someone help me. But then I quickly became frustrated with the tripod and started trying hand held. And while a little clumsy and perhaps not too elegant at first, I learned and it’s totally doable now.”
Clarence still experiences constant phantom pain in his amputated limb, which has become part of his daily life. “Traumatized nerve endings” he explains. “The brain doesn’t understand that the limb is gone. It feels as if my forearm and hand are in a cast of molten lava that constricts continuously. I can still move my ‘fingers.’ It feels like when as a child at the beach your pals bury you up to the neck in the sand, and you try to move, but you can’t, until you break free that is. Except I can’t break free.”
But he is, once again, counting his blessings, as he continues to devote himself to his work and his daughter. And we are proud to share his ’Skate-Homies’ project, which was exhibited at Court Tree Collective Gallery, spanning pictures taken before and after the amputation of his arm. It’s an ongoing project, and he heads to Venice, California, later this month to continue to capture the skating community.
“It was the diversity of the skaters and the skate culture in general that drew me into this outlaw lifestyle,” says Clarence. “And I knew I could capture it through my photography.”
And as for what drove him to twice come back from the brink, and to continue to embrace his life and work, he says there was no particular epiphany or eureka moment.
He says, “I just wanted more time, more good moments, time to collect good memories.
“Do I miss playing my guitar? Yes! Does it suck? Yes! Will I ever be fine with it? No! But that’s the way it is and what matters most is that I’ll be around for my daughter.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it’s endlessly frustrating and it doesn’t really get any better and sure, there are days when it gets me down. But it’s my new reality and I’m happy to be here.
“While I lost an arm, it does not prevent me from working as a photographer. It’s not like I lost my eyes.”