Icons of Photography: Larry Sultan

Larry Sultan was born on July 13, 1946, in Brooklyn. Three years later, his parents moved to what would become his inspirational landscape, California’s San Fernando Valley. His father was a vice-president at Schick razors. His aunt was a Hollywood talent scout.

Mostly, he’s known for photographing homes. Or rather ‘homes’, turning images of people and places into ideas of people and places. ‘In my work there is a lot of ambivalence, wanting it to be true, knowing it’s not,’ he said. An obituary described his pictures as ‘engaging ideas of truth, fantasy, and artifice in the context of home and middle-class domesticity’. If that makes his work sound dry and abstract, the pictures aren’t. They are saturated with emotion, personality, jokes and the deepest, most personal of colour palettes. You wouldn’t mind living in a Larry Sultan picture. Wallpaper* magazine figured that out and used him as its regular star photographer of fashionable and quirky interiors. He also worked for W and Vanity Fair.

He came to photography from the art game – and a political science degree already on his CV. In fact, despite a successful commercial career, he was always part of the art rather than the photographic world. From 1988, he was a professor on the photography programme at California College of the Arts in the San Francisco area. He’s been shown at MoMA.

His first published work was a book, Evidence, done in collaboration with artist Mike Mandel. It was a collection of 59 uncaptioned photographs that he and Mandel dug out from the archives of government departments, big companies and research institutions. They are really odd pictures. A man in a space suit face down on an office floor. A gloved arm holding a loop of rope. They have been described, from an art world perspective, as ‘a seminal foundation for a new conceptual practice based in photographic mediums that attempt to decentralize the once-triumphed pinnacles in photography-as-art: narrative and authorship.’ A good point badly made.

Right away, even though he never actually clicked the shutter to make the pictures, there is, in Evidence, the essence of Sultan’s photography and style: witty, funny even, finding the surreal in the ordinary, rooted in (and fascinated by) daily American life.

In particular, in the family. ‘Photography is there to construct the idea of us as a great family and we go on vacations and take these pictures and then we look at them later and we say: Isn’t this a great family? So photography is instrumental in creating family not only as a memento, a souvenir, but also a kind of mythology.’

So it was to the family he turned next – his own. He photographed his ageing parents, Irving and Jean, at home, right after his father had been pushed into early retirement. The book, Pictures from Home, published in 1992, also included genuine Sultan family pictures, stills from home movies and his parents’ comments on being photographed by their son. Mostly, they didn’t like it, particularly the way he got them to pose and not smile. Both parents died not long after the project was completed.

Often viewed – and described – as critiques of the suburban life, the pictures are far more complex than that. When we look at old Dutch masters’ interiors – Vermeer’s Soldier and a Laughing Girl, for example – we don’t see them as sardonic commentaries but as richly detailed and worked studies of life as it is lived, with all its contradictions, of power, lust, status and, well, chair design and fashions in wall covering.

So, too, with Sultan’s pictures. The apple green wall and matching shag pile carpet of his parents’ home is a thing of wonder. Honestly. To see his work as merely ironic is to miss its true irony. As with Eggleston, a surface sheen of irony conceals – yet, in its knowing superficiality, hints at and echoes – a deeper level warmly free of irony.

This is something Sultan said: ‘I realise that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.’ Which makes me, at least, think of Practising Golf Swing – his father Irving doing just that, in his shorts, in a room with the TV on in the corner and the net curtains drawn. And of what Irving said about it, too: ‘It’s such a shitty swing that I cringe every time I see it.’

Around the turn of the century, Sultan took the pictures for his next book, The Valley – images of porn films being made in the San Fernando Valley, which is where most of them are made, in rented houses just like the one he grew up in. There is no sex in these pictures. Well, probably not. Sometimes, there seem to be things going on in the bushes. You peer at the bushes, strainedly, of course. You see a roll of paper towels on a coffee table and you think: why so many? You look at a heap of discarded sheets in a doorway and you wonder: why? Come to that, who left that half-eaten pie on the kitchen counter?

And you hear Sultan in your head, going: gotcha. The all-too-human drive to look at other people having sex has pushed you into a moral trap. And you also think: there goes a younger Sultan hearing odd noises coming from his parents’ bedroom. ‘By photographing this I’m planted squarely in the terrain of my own ambivalence — that rich and fertile field that stretches out between fascination and repulsion, desire and loss. I’m home again.’

His last major work used day labourers, hiring them and setting them against a landscape of his adult years – the edge of the Bay Area suburbs. Poor immigrants who were normally paid to, say, mow lawns were now being paid to act out roles. The economic exchange was as central to these pictures as anything done in the camera. ‘When I employ day labourers as actors,’ he explained. ‘I contaminate the picturesque quality and problematise it.’ Which raises the main question about Sultan’s work: is it over-dependent on exposition? Do the pictures make sense or at least resonate without an explanation of how and why they were taken?

If, for example, we didn’t know that it was his father practising his golf swing (in his underwear) and if we didn’t know that his father bitched about Sultan pushing him to do it, what then? My answer? It would still be a great picture, echoic and universal – ‘planted squarely’, as Sultan put it, in ‘that rich and fertile field that stretches out between fascination and repulsion, desire and loss.’

He died on December 13, 2009, in California. He was in his own home.

© Peter Silverton 2019

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.