Thursday, December 17, 2009

Larry Sultan dies of cancer at 63

Larry Sultan, an admired photographer and maker of one of my favorite photo-books, Pictures From Home, died last Sunday at his home in California.

Here is an obituary from Edgar Allen Beem at PDN and two memorable photographs from Pictures From Home.

Born in New York in 1946, Sultan grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and earned an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1973. His mission as a photographer was to “raise questions about the construction of a photograph and make that construction apparent.” Throughout his 35-year career, Sultan’s work was always about how pictures mean as opposed to what they mean.

In 1977, Sultan published Evidence in collaboration with artist Mike Mandel. The work is a collection of appropriated and de-contextualized photographs from business, industry and government archives. It made the point that context is everything, and that meaning is not inherent in objects or images but is a function of human perception.

Sultan’s subsequent work was about making compelling photographs that explore illusion and reality. Pictures from Home, published in 1992, examined home, family and suburban domesticity in the late 20th century. Combining photographs of Sultan’s parents with family snapshots, business photos, and home movie stills, Pictures from Home was occasioned by his father’s forced early retirement as vice president for sales of Schick Safety Razor.

Sultan portrayed his father as a kind of latter-day Willie Loman, a Corporate Everyman put out to pasture, his most iconic image being a portrait of Irving Sultan in a blue business suit sitting on a bed. Mr. Sultan, however, insisted, “That’s not me” when he saw his vacant expression in his son’s photograph.

"When you photograph me,” Irving Sultan complained, “I feel everything leave me. The blood drains from my face, my eyelids droop, my thoughts disappear.”

Sultan told his parents not to smile in any of the Pictures from Home photographs because he did not want them to be emotionally engaging. He explained that his interest lay in the tension he created between that which is depicted and the construction of the photograph.

“In my work there is a lot of ambivalence, wanting it [the photograph] to be true, knowing it’s not,” Sultan told PDN last spring. Sultan took it as a given that the presence of a photographer and of a camera inevitably changes that which they attempt to depict. By including his father’s objections and disavowals in the text of Pictures from Home, Sultan subverted not only his photographs but himself.

Yet the photographs in Pictures from Home, noted Sultan, “are not totally contrived.” They did depict his real parents in the photographer's real home, but under the direction of their son, the unseen man with a camera. Still, in the tension between the artist and his subjects, Sultan believed that something about the nature of home and family is revealed.

“That’s my abiding faith in my practice – how can the work itself call attention to its own construction?”

In 2004, Larry Sultan: The Valley (Scalo) extended Sultan’s investigations of myths and illusions into the realm of sexual fantasy, focusing on how the pornography industry appropriates homes in the San Fernando Valley as weekend sets for skin flicks. The Valley took the idea of “home” into the dangerous terrain of desire where the real homes of real people become the “realistic” settings for the films.

“I’m interested not in pornography, but rather in dismantling it, in exploring domesticity, the construction of desire,” Sultan once explained to a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Sultan’s best photographs had the faux look of staged scenarios, an element of personal style that adds irony to the implied sincerity of the scenes he depicts.

“I’ve always tried to make whatever I do mine,” Sultan said, noting that when Interview asked him to photograph the over-exposed Paris Hilton, a celebrity famous simply for being famous, he insisted on doing it on his own terms.

“I said I’d do it if she would go to my parents’ house and let me photograph her in my childhood home in her underwear like a horny teenager,” Sultan said.

One of Sultan’s last projects, which he called Homeland, consisted of staged photographs of immigrants on the fringes of the California suburban landscapes. He hired immigrant day laborers as “actors” and depicted them in a variety of scenes, such as fetching water from a stream and carrying bowls along a weedy path behind cookie cutter tract homes.

“In all of the things I’m drawn to,” said Sultan, “photographs have a major role in constructing the mythology of the thing.”

And whether he is photographing home and family, sex and cinema, or immigrants in search of the American Dream, Sultan had a major role in deconstructing the mythology of the thing.

1 comment:

Zoe said...

Great post, sad day.
Thank you