Influential American photographer Larry Sultan passed away this week, leaving behind a great body of work and, with his 1977 project with Mike Mandel, Evidence, one of the great art photography documents of the late Twentieth Century.
Sultan and Mandel met whilst studying in San Francisco in the Seventies, and embarked on a project collating images from various vast scientific, industrial and governmental archives. After two years the pair published a book of 59 of these photographs - all uncaptioned - which, displayed as they were, painted an enigmatic, disturbing picture of post-Industrial America, which helped to introduce the importance of the idea of the found image as art. Removed from their original context and meaning, the images (sometimes hilarious, sometimes sinister or perplexing) are powerful and engaging in their own right, but also make the viewer question the kind of society that produced them.
For his next major project in the 1980s, Pictures From Home, Sultan turned his gaze on something far more personal – his parents. He spent a decade photographing his mother and father, both retired, in a series of colour-rich and hyper-realistic portraits. Often depicting his parents seemingly lost in their own home, whiling away the hours in a daze, the images were actually nearly all staged, and explored Sultan’s fascination with fiction and suggested narrative. As his father said of one of these images “you tell people that that’s not me sitting on the bed looking all dressed up and nowhere to go, depressed. That’s you sitting on the bed, and I am happy to help you with the project, but let’s get things straight here.” The cinematic style of the photographs proved incredibly influential on a whole generation of photographers such as Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, who are still exploring its possibilities today.
This interest in perceived narrative then led Sultan to photograph the burgeoning porno movie scene in the San Fernando Valley in the 1990s. Here, innocuous suburban homes were being used as sets for all manner of adult movies, and this combination of staged sexual scenarios in mundane domestic settings was fertile subject matter for Sultan. Avoiding the explicit and gratuitous, The Valley is a testament to his skill and vision as a photographer as it manages to convey the seedy, lubed-up action of the movies whilst also making the everyday locations and props an integral part of the sexual fantasy. Remarking on one particular set, Sultan said “The furnishings and objects in the house, which have been carefully arranged, become estranged from their intended function. The roll of paper towels on the coffee table, the bed linens in a pile by the door, the shoes under the bed are transformed into props, or the residue of unseen but very imaginable actions. Even the piece of half-eaten pie on the kitchen counter arouses suspicion.”
Sultan also found time to shoot editorial for magazines such as The New York Times Magazine, W, and Wallpaper*, where he further explored the themes that fascinated him. In one particular fashion story for Wallpaper* from 2008, focussing on adolescent temptation and angst, he even paid homage to one of his most iconic shots of his dad swinging a golf club indoors, updating the image with a bored teenage protagonist practicing his putting.
Untitled, from Evidence, 1977
The Kitchen, Santa Clarita, from The Valley, 2001
Kitchen Window, from The Valley, 1999