Photographer Larry Sultan uses suburban landscapes to needle the American Dream
In 2017, while visiting San Francisco, I went to see a Richard Diebenkorn exhibit at SFMOMA and instead ended up spending most of the day one floor below, soaking in Here and Home, a posthumous retrospective of Larry Sultan’s photographs.
Before his death in 2009 (at 63, from cancer) Sultan achieved success in many different areas of photography. From his first conceptual work – in collaboration with Mike Mandel — to fine art exhibits and publications; to advertising campaigns for Bottega Venetta and editorial assignments for Vanity Fair and Maxim. Although all of the projects in his impressive portfolio on view at the SFMOMA show were powerful, I found Pictures From Home to be the most haunting.
WHAT: Larry Sultan; Domestic Theater
WHERE: Yancey Richardson Gallery, 525 W 22nd St, NYC
WHEN: February 21-April 6, 2019
For ten years (1982-‘92) Sultan photographed his parents at home in suburban California. His father retired early from a successful career as a sales executive for Schick razors; the couple could afford to live out their years in comfort in the outward trappings of the American Dream: fancy homes, TVs, built-in pools, golf. The retrospective included the accolades and achievements of Irving Sultan’s career in capitalist America of the 1960s and ‘70s.
An important aspect of Larry Sultan’s work was to go beyond documenting his parents’ lives. He also directed scenarios to create a story. With the trust of family, he was able to compose ironic, posed images as well as moments of incredible intimacy. The many photos of his parents conversing in the bedroom, the hallway, through a kitchen window — even the driveway — are deeply personal. So much so that his father thought he took advantage of his mother’s decline to get the images he wanted.
The New York Times obituary for the photographer quoted a paternal admonition after Larry directed his father not to smile for an image. “Any time you show that picture,” he recalled his father saying, “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. I am happy to help you with the project, but let’s get things straight here.”
One image called “Dad, Pool Portrait” shows the middle-aged father from the waist up in the shallow end of a pool. His hands are on his hips, his head is tilted with a cocky and bemused smile. He is wearing a silver watch and bathing trunks. When I lingered longer on his eyes, I could see beyond a fading man weary of playing a part. I could see how lovingly he looked at his son behind the camera. He was willing to put up with all the shenanigans to make his son’s work a success.
Three years later, the Yancey Richardson gallery has the first New York show of Larry Sultan’s work since 2004. Domestic Theater is a greatest hits collection of Sultan’s favorite backdrop: houses in the suburbs.
The first room is predominantly work from “The Valley” project. On an editorial assignment for Maxim in the early aughts, Sultan shot behind-the-scenes of porn productions in rented houses in America’s adult film capital, the San Fernando Valley of California. In expressing the underbelly or dark side of the American Dream, he shoots beautiful domestic locations with little to no interaction with the actors or camera crew. His POV is dispassionate, reducing the actors to props in his ironic critique that home is not always so sweet.
The main gallery includes photos of interiors, comical in their mix of wealth and bad taste. “Vivid Entertainment #2,” with huge taxidermy heads on creamsicle-colored walls, flopped-over teddy bears and a mysterious box of Kleenex dares you to guess at what just transpired in that room.
A collection from the aforementioned Pictures From Home project are hung in a small room off the main gallery. The room has only about a half-dozen images with a wall dedicated to a grid of 16 11×14 stills from his parents’ home movies. It is eerie to look at these images of the “good life,” the innocent memories of deceased parents re-photographed by a deceased son. “Eerie” is perhaps not the most apt adjective for the fact that they are being offered for sale individually for just over $13,000.
His very best images from the series — “Mom Posing by Green Wall and Dad Watching TV” (1984) and “Practicing Golf Swing” (1986) — are here. But the emotional quality of the project is missing. Although it is unfair to compare the many rooms of a museum to the limited space that a gallery has to relay an artist’s work, the edit of this show is very tight, allowing concept to prevail over emotional connection.
Still, the opportunity to see Larry Sultan’s photographs in person is a gift. It’s worth taking the time to drink in the many layers of meaning in each image.