Larry Sultan (1946 – 2009) was an American photographer who is probably best known for his collaborative work with Mike Mandel which of which the most famous piece is Evidence.
in Evidence Mandel and Sultan collected a series of pictures that were available in the archives at police and fire departments, government bodies and engineering corporations and showed them as fine art pictures. They then collected them into a book, which at the time was extremely controversial, as they claimed authorship of these found pictures. Since then the use of found pictures has become well established either by working with personal or family archives or by finding pictures online and manipulating them.
Sultan says about this work ‘it was very controversial because we had claimed authorship. At that time the word appropriation hadn’t been used in an art context. It came out of a Duchampian strategy of the found object, in this case the found photograph.’ The pictures in Evidence are interesting, not necessarily the most beautiful images, in fact they frequently are not. However, I find at least one of them, which shows the corner of the room and boards in it, fascinating and I could stare at it for hours. Evidence was initially self published however has been reproduced fairly recently in a facsimile version with added essays (Sultan and Mandel, 2018)
Larry Sultan has done much other work. One of his major pieces of work was entitled Pictures from Home which included his words, his own pictures that he took of his family. and also found family memorabilia and snapshots. Sultan describes this work as in his statement about it as ‘What drives me to continue this work is difficult to name. It has more to do with love than with sociology, with being a subject in the drama rather than witness. And in the odd and jumbled process of working, everything shifts; the boundaries blur, my distance slips, the arrogance and illusion of immunity falters. I wake up in the night stunned and anguished’.
The images he takes of his family are sometimes staged, sometimes snapshots. They are not necessarily beautiful in anyway, although some are. There is a picture of lawn sprinklers where the light shines through the water. They are everyday images, things that might happen with any family; his mom and dad having a conversation in the driveway with his dad leaning against the car, his dad scratching his head while carrying a bunch of golf clubs, his dad’s desk scattered with the usual chaotic mess that most desks acquire. All interspersed with snapshots taken across time. He shows images that compare his dad at the same age as ones of himself and comments ‘I always looked younger than he did when he was my age. Perhaps people aged differently prior to the 1960s; can it be that the times we live in leave imprints on our faces and bodies?’
Sultan went on to make several other series of works, for instance, The Valley in which he examines the way pornography and pornographic pictures are taken and how they fit into an apparently suburban lifestyle. Homeland was his last major piece of work in which he hired day labourers as actors in landscape photography. This produced some sublimely beautiful images of people working in the countryside. Showing again the ordinary things of life. About this piece of work, he says, ‘The suburban terrain – both literally and also in terms of being an American photographer thinking about the daily, the ordinary – is what I to go back to’. One image from this group is simply entitled Creek, Santa Rosa 2007 shows somebody crouched at the edge of a creek with a bucket and some stones while another person wanders away in the background up towards houses. The light on this image is beautiful, it is a very peaceful image and it leaves me wondering what the men were doing with these buckets. Were they collecting water? Were they washing something? Were they trying to make a garden? Another image in the same series Corte Madera Marsh 2009 shows men wading through water against a background of mountains and tall grass. If you look at it very carefully one of the men is walking away into the grass which comes well above his head. Is it grass or are the trees? And does it matter? It is a very gentle picture and one I could look at for a considerable length of time.
I find the range of Sultans work fascinating. If, as he suggests he feels ‘alienated from where he lived’ he has managed to show the ordinary, the banal, and the magic of the part of America he lived in. A final quote, ‘Being a photographer allow me to be a witness, to participate in a way that felt right for my blend of being alienated’.
All quotes from the book Larry Sultan – Here and Home (Sultan et al., 2014)
Sultan, L. et al. (eds.) (2014) Larry Sultan: here and home. Los Angeles, California: Munich; London ; New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art ; Delmonico Books, Prestel.
Sultan, L. and Mandel, M. (eds.) (2018) Evidence. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.