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Larry Sultan’s Porn Stars, Mezuzahs, Migrant Workers, and Jewish Mothers

In the late photographer’s first career retrospective, the ‘aroma of daily life’ lives forever

Abby Margulies
April 14, 2015

Over the course of 35 years, Larry Sultan, the late contemporary photographer, photojournalist, and teacher, turned his lens on subject matter as diverse as his parents, migrant workers, and porn stars, challenging photographic conventions at every turn. Through a striking use of natural light, unexpected composition, and an enthusiasm for mining humor from everyday life, Sultan created photographs that are visually arresting and ripe with narrative possibilities. Among the works in the current retrospective, Larry Sultan: Here and Home, now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is a picture of the photographer’s parents at the kitchen table. His mother stands unpacking groceries; his father gazes up at her, receipt in hand, scrutinizing her purchases. The table, littered with bills and a pair of glasses, the mess of daily life, reminded me of the last time I visited my grandmother.

My grandmother was a fastidious and principled woman, traits that were readily apparent in her impeccably stacked Tupperware and the way she nested her pans neatly into one another. At 96 she was finally slowing down, and I knew then, as one does, that the visit might be my last. Wandering through her house, I tried to map her life through an investigation of her belongings. It wasn’t the stuff that I wanted to remember, but how it was arranged. Like Sultan photographing the mundane task of returning from the grocery store, I wanted to memorize those tiny gestures that comprised her everyday.

The quest to preserve moments in time by capturing the quotidian details of daily life is what drives Sultan’s work. “It’s the daily thing that interests me,” Sultan said in a 1989 interview with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross. “It’s the familiar that I think is so phenomenally rich with innuendo and, I guess, the aroma of daily life.” Taken together, the large-format, vibrant color photographs on view in Here and Home, the first survey of Sultan’s career, highlight the way in which his interest was not the event itself, but the moments in between.

Sultan, who died in 2009 at age 63, was born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents, but raised in the San Fernando Valley. In the early 1970s, exhausted by Brooklyn living, Sultan’s father Irv boarded a train headed west, quite literally in search of the American dream. His family followed shortly after, a homecoming of sorts that his mother described as akin to paradise. “You went wild,” she told Sultan in Pictures From Home. “It was a sunny day and you ran up and down the street. After years in an apartment, here it was: houses with front and back yards.”

Sultan was raised in the Southern California suburban utopia of sprinklers, manicured lawns, and swimming pools, a landscape whose billboard culture and diffuse light would forever influence his practice. Upon entering the exhibition at LACMA, it is this facet of his work—a great fascination with the suburban landscape of California—that strikes first. (Some of it is reminiscent of Joan Didion’s love songs to her native land whose beauty and terror lie in its scarred hills and drifting soot.) Sultan presents sweeping portraits of California living and the suburban dream, which is captured entirely through its details. In his images, it is the trajectory of a sprinkler watering the lawn, a teakettle in partial view, or the way a sheet slides off a mattress that guides our view.

Here and Home features six bodies of Sultan’s work: Evidence (1977), an early collaboration with fellow LA-artist Mike Mandel and one of the first uses of photographic appropriation; Swimmers (1978-1982), documenting people learning to swim, shot entirely underwater; Pictures From Home (1983-1992), a nine-year study of his parents; The Valley (1997-2003), depicting pornography film shoots set in suburban homes; and Homeland (2006-2009), staged photographs of migrant workers participating in recreational activities.

“His goal was to make a picture that allowed you to get lost,” said his wife, Kelly Sultan. “By looking at the periphery rather than the main event, you became absorbed and intrigued and had room to create your own story.” And so we see Thanksgiving dinner captured in the uncooked turkey, the afternoon’s activity conveyed by the nap that follows, the hustle of a porn shoot realized through a break standing around the kitchen. This interest in what Kelly Sultan describes as “the non” led Sultan to create a body of work that is singular in its composition and ability to capture both an artistic vision and a deeply personal sentiment.

For Sultan, what seemed to always be on the periphery was a longing for, and fascination with, home. The vast majority of his photographs turned inwards, toward constructions of domesticity and the family. In each image what we see is Sultan—the father, husband, and son—turning his eye to how we construct family, project our ideals of domesticity, and, inevitably, look back home to try and map our future.

The most apparent manifestation of this interest is Pictures From Home, a body of work first conceived of as a book, which included interviews with his parents and stills from home videos and family snapshots, placed alongside Sultan’s own images of his parents. The series presents a vision of the family told through the minutiae of everyday life: reviewing bills at the table, fixing a vacuum cleaner, reading in bed.

Though an unlikely point of comparison, Sultan’s earlier body of work, Evidence, provided much of the conceptual framework for approaching this topic. Evidence was born out of an interest in questioning the inherent objectivity of photography through the use of appropriation. the project was funded by an NEA grant, and Sultan and Mandel spent two years in the archives of disparate Bay Area institutions, including NASA, Sunkist, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, pulling pictures of fires, crime scenes, and scientific experiments, which, when repurposed, resulted in a otherworldly, funny, and profoundly disturbing collection of photographs. The project helped lend weight to Sultan’s belief that photography was not an objective medium, that any subject was altered when taken out of context, and that the vision of the person taking it imbued the photograph with a new reality.

This set of beliefs was given new depth one Christmas vacation when Sultan and his parents opted to watch old home videos rather than rent a movie, an experience that Sultan described as revelatory: “Sitting in the living room, we watched 30 years of folktales—epic celebrations of the family. They were remarkable, more like a record of hopes and fantasies than of actual events. It was as if my parents had projected their dreams onto film emulsions.”

Sultan was captivated. For the next nine years he visited his parents in their San Fernando home and later in Palm Dessert, spending entire weekends photographing them. Staging photographs and then often capturing them in between takes instead, Sultan created a visually arresting and profoundly moving portrait of family life, drawing attention to how we project ourselves onto the hopes and failures of our parents and map our attempts to navigate adult life by turning to the best source material we know—those who raised us.

“I was really lost,” Sultan explained in an interview with curator Drew Johnson at the Oakland Museum. “I began to study these home movies, looking for myself, looking for the evidence of my life. I realized I could re-shape them like a good dream.”

Sultan began staging photographs, asking his dad to dress up in a suit and pretend to give a Dale Carnegie talk, or posing his parents in the living room. But what he often captured instead was the break in the action—his dad sitting down on the bed, frustrated with how long it was taking, or turning on the TV while his mom stood patiently waiting for Sultan to fix a broken strobe. While some of the staged photographs are included in the exhibition, it is impromptu images like, Dad on Bed, an outtake from the Carnegie talk shoot, and My Mother Posing for Me that are among the best works. By turning to the subject closest to him, Sultan was able to grapple with the complexities of objectivity that fascinated him in Evidence, while simultaneously wrestling with his own ideas of selfhood.

“Look, I am really happy to help you with this work,” Irv Sultan says in Pictures From Home, “but I really want you to know that I already know that that’s you sitting on the bed, that this is a self portrait. I know who I am, you know who you are, your values are part of this work, but let’s just make it very explicit, that is you sitting on the bed.”

This conversation, about whose work and whose truth it was, was one that Sultan and his father had frequently. “I wouldn’t presume that I’m telling the truth,” Sultan later said to Terry Gross. “I’m telling my version of the truth but it’s not the objective version. There is no objective version.”

It is this facet of Sultan’s work—the simultaneous theoretical discussion surrounding his images, combined with the deeply emotional approach—that is particularly inventive and that has continued to influence contemporary photographers. “He walks that line a bit about what documentary is and what documentary means,” says exhibition curator Rebecca Morse. “In my opinion, can’t you reveal something about someone else by creating a fiction around them?”

Through the details of a snag in the curtain, the corner of a glowing TV screen, a slightly deflated raft, we see Sultan piecing together a life. We watch his mother look at his father, we stand behind them as they review bills. We are all transported to our mother’s kitchen, we see our own father working in the yard. We puzzle together what it means to grow up and grow old, to own a home and raise a family. Together with Sultan, we long for what once was.

Sultan found a new and unexpected entry point for exploring the domestic in The Valley. Commissioned by Maxim magazine to shoot a day in the life of a porn director, Sultan arrived to the shoot site to find himself only blocks away from his high school, on the street his former crush had lived on. Uncertain at first, Sultan soon became compelled by the perversion of the domestic he was witnessing and the odd alternative family that cropped up on site, with actors, cameramen, and directors laughing, eating, and napping between takes. Almost immediately, Sultan felt that he had discovered his next project, and after completing his assignment for Maxim, began spending time on adult film sets, most often in rented suburban homes. Sultan’s images look past the sex itself, a subject that he found in the context of the shoots highly unerotic, focusing instead on the details of the home.

“I’ve been on sets where you see a porn actress standing in a room naked and you start looking around and you see details—a mezuzah and a Book of Knowledge on the bookshelf,” said Sultan to Johnson. “There’s a reciprocity of strangeness going on in there.”

The images in The Valley depict a large, suburban pool cabana with glimpses of an orgy in the corner, a naked man casually resting against a kitchen sink, or dogs sniffing at the heels of a robe-clad actress. Sultan was captivated by the notably ordinary imagery that surrounded the filming, evoking the bourgeoning and complicated sexuality of the teenage years and the general listlessness that accompanies suburban life.

Perhaps the most striking work in the series is Tasha’s Third Film, which depicts Tasha seated on the couch between two napping crew members, a sex scene just barely in view behind her head. The photo was taken after Tasha hung up the phone with her mother, whom she had been asking for advice, worried she wasn’t getting paid enough for what she was doing. While much of The Valley is characterized by the strange and oftentimes humorous interplay of the naked body and the domestic interior, Tasha’s Third Film stands in contrast. Here Sultan creates a portrait of a young woman, caught between childhood and adulthood, a complex vision of his interest in the in-between, and an echo of the longing for childhood that he explored in Pictures From Home.

Sultan’s final look at home came from yet another unexpected subject. He became interested in the day laborers working in Marin County where he lived and how their vision of the domestic dramatically differed from his. Each day these men worked not to make a life for themselves in California, but to earn wages to send back home, in the hopes that they could eventually return to their true domestic sphere.

Homeland sees Sultan staging romanticized tableaux depicting Latino men participating in recreational activities: carrying food to a potluck, visiting the batting cages, resting under a tree. Inspired by the grand landscape paintings of the Hudson River Valley School, Homeland reflects the most traditional composition of any of Sultan’s work, depicting men, clearly framed, dwarfed by the enormity of the landscape. The longing here is inverted, conveyed not by the details that compose a life but by those that are absent. In this case, the place itself—and the possibility it presents—is the reason these men are here. The mundane detail of the everyday is in the vastness that surrounds them.

Though Sultan’s work has a strong conceptual framework, he was finally driven by something extremely personal. “It has more to do with love than with sociology,” he said of Pictures From Home. “I want my parents to live forever.”


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Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

Abby Margulies is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.