Larry Sultan: Close to Home

by Kim Steele

Den, Santa Clarita / 2002, photograph by Larry Sultan

A thoroughly California product, Larry Sultan mined the Golden State’s sensibility for most of his career. After a degree in Political Science, he pursued a graduate degree at the San Francisco Art Institute.  He was immediately drawn to the conceptual dimension of picture taking and joined forces with a fellow conceptualist, Mike Mandel.  They collaborated for many years.

Untitled Evidence / 1977, photograph by Larry Sultan

Sultan’s first body of work was titled Evidence.  These were photos from corporate and government archives, which functioned as a representation of what appeared important to these institutions, but were banal in nature.  He took the concept further by combining the images with curious text on billboards in the Los Angeles area.  These were intended to prompt the viewer/driver in this case, to stop and ponder the juxtaposition of image and message. The New York Times characterized these images as a “watershed in the history of photography.”

Oranges on Fire / 1975, photograph by Larry Sultan

Sultan wove in and out of the prevailing sensibilities of picture making for forty years.  He influenced many photographers as a teacher at both the San Francisco Art Institute, and the California College of the Arts where he became the Department Chair.  He taught for most of his career, while exhibiting and creating books. His work sticks close to home, both physically and conceptually. He was raised in the San Fernando Valley, near LA.  One of his most influential series was on assignment for Maxim Magazine, to shoot the middle class homes that were employed as sets for the porn industry.  These are powerful images.  They create multiple layers of meaning and references while holding the titillating sexual element at bay.  They are nuanced with Americana and middle class icons, with only tangential elements of the porn industry.  Certainly no direct sexual activity, just the banal matter of waiting and ‘passing the time’ in these ordinary environments are the subject here.

The Valley series. Haskell Avenue / 1998, photograph by Larry Sultan

After this assignment, which took Sultan within a stones throw of his high school, he began a book on this subject titled The Valley. In San Francisco at Casemore Kirkeby, through June 10, 2017, and exhibited for the first time ever, is a series Sultan made on a subsequent 2003 assignment for Wallpaper magazine to photograph a line of modern furniture.  There is a tongue in cheek mood in these vivid colored prints. Sultan placed the modern furniture in mise-en-scène (gallery’s release term), but added a touch of the context elements used in pornography, e.g. handcuffs, heels, etc. The images are rich with entendre.  The rough and ready side of the industry is not so apparent here as in his Valley series.  Before this series he photographed his parents in their home.  This effort resulted in one of Sultan’s most memorable images of his parents, titled Pictures from Home. These are truly touching and emotional laden images. They are a bit reminiscent of Avedon’s images of his dying father.

My Mother Posing for Me/ 1984, photograph by Larry Sultan

The eighties introduced a new genre in photography, the constructed image.  Beforehand there was an effort to explore the outside world with a notion of veracity. Cindy Sherman was the leader of the movement. Not staged, but ‘constructed.’  This approach to image-making relies on the mythologies of subjects, whether it be Hollywood or pornography. Sultan is well versed in visual mythology and it is evident in his various images. Another series, Homeland (2006–2009), further explored the intersection between a longing for home and fulfillment against the promise of suburban life by staging day laborers in domestic dramas.  They have always appeared over-arched to this reviewer and do not ring true. These images do not connect directly with the struggles of the immigrant labors but more the rift between them and their employers. Possibly workers standing on the streets outside U-Haul would ring a more honest note?

Canal District San Raphael, CA., photograph by Larry Sultan

At San Francisco MOMA now is a contemporaneous exhibition, titled Larry Sultan: Here and Home, through July 23rd.  “As an artist, Larry Sultan was one of the great thinkers of photography in all of its facets,” said Clément Chéroux, senior curator of photography at SF MOMA. “He had the unique power and insight to transform certain forms of functional photography into art.”  Sultan’s four main bodies of work are represented here:  Evidence, Pictures from Home, The Valley and Homeland. His collaborator, Mike Mandel, will be showing at the Museum following this show, from May 20th through August 20, 2017.  Mandel introduced influences in Sultan from other constructs in photography, such as, Robert Cumming, a conceptualist whom I interviewed in the 1970’s, and admire, and the renowned Ed Ruscha; as well as the outsider, Robert Heineken.  A provocative body of work.

Sharon Wild, Vallery series, photograph by Larry Sultan


Previous post:

Next post: