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Larry Sultan: Desire at the End of the Cul-de-sac

Larry Sultan: Here and Home at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the first retrospective of the California photographer -- almost more a Los Angeles photographer -- whose images of suburban life are unsettling and aching with desire. The exhibition includes more than 200 photographs, many of them oversize color prints of surreal clarity. Others are screen shots from his father's silent home movies that lingered dreamlike over Sultan's San Fernando Valley childhood.

The exhibition also includes found photographs from aerospace companies and government agencies that Sultan collected with collaborator Mike Mandel and published as "Evidence" in 1977. Along with "Evidence" at LACMA are four other major projects, as well as an encounter with Sultan in documents and images collected in a digital library in an annex to the exhibition.

LACMA has even brought Sultan back to the streets. Between 1973 and 1989, Sultan and Mandel created fifteen designs there were put up on commercial billboards all over California. LACMA has recreated "Oranges on Fire," a sort of anti-orange crate label, and will post it at 15 locations in Los Angeles until November 30.

More of the Sultan/Mandel billboard designs will go up in the following months.

Larry Sultan wanted, he once said, to make beautiful and powerful objects that were photographs. He called himself a forensic photographer looking for the traces of moments -- uncanny, abandoned, or consoling -- that give even suburban tract houses memories of themselves.

"My daily issues are about family and relationship, success, failure, and disappointment," Sultan once said. "And the everyday was the site for this work. And I wanted to approach it with tenderness, rather than with dismissal."

He thought a photograph might be like a touch lingering on the skin, even if that touch was given by one porn actor to another.

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, 'Oranges on Fire', 1975 | larrysultan.com
Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, 'Oranges on Fire', 1975 | larrysultan.com

Sultan also said he wanted to see but also that he didn't want to see. "There are these moments in which you get to see without knowing what it is yet," he said. "I think those are the rare moments of seeing."

But Sultan always found things to show, often at the periphery, not the act but the act's setting, and sometimes entirely fabricated, like the photograph of his father in suit and tie sitting at the edge of his bed, or like the tableaux of Latino day laborers he arranged against a backdrop of tract houses.

The deliberately staged is as much a document of something that happened as a snapshot of something happening. Both photographs are intended. Both extract a moment in time for someone's contemplation.

When he photographed the backdrops of pornographic movies in the San Fernando Valley, he said he chose to "photograph a constructed interior, one meant to look cozy, but function(ing) in every way but coziness. At the same time, the pictures are also infused with a deep sense of my own longing, desire and a nostalgia that manifests itself in sliding glass doors or flagstone fireplaces."

Sultan was obsessed by memory and its disappointments. After he had photographed his aging parents as characters in his future recollection of them, he said, "I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever."

He wondered if these photographs of his parents -- taken out of time -- might be an insult. He thought that every photograph raised the issue of voyeurism. "It's unavoidable," he told an interviewer.

He was ambivalent about the space photography occupied in the imagination. He said once, "I think pictures diminish us."

He also said that photographs could measure how an ordinary life was lived against how that life was dreamed.

Sultan wasn't trying to be ironic. "I wanted to do something that was complicated and dark, but also tender and treated the suburbs or my suburbs ... as something quite compelling and complicated and rich."

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, 'Untitled Evidence', 1977 | larrysultan.com
Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, 'Untitled Evidence', 1977 | larrysultan.com

The landscape of Sultan's memory was the San Fernando Valley (where he lived until he was 17) and newer places further out that recalled the half-done, half-raw terrain of his boyhood. He photographed to unsettle the stereotypes of these places, off centering the clichés, enlarging the narrative.

"The suburban terrain, both literally and also in terms of being an American photographer thinking about the daily, the ordinary -- is what I go back to," he said. "I want to investigate the stereotype of the suburbs and complicate that stereotype, make it a richer field, something that isn't filled with the assumption of generic lives."

Even when he covered the business of making pornography in "The Valley," it was something other than the generics of sex, even the interludes of genuine eroticism, that interested him. "I kept on coming back not to sex, but to home," he said. "For me, the house contaminates pornography; it's not pornography that contaminates the house."

I think Sultan was composing an elegy for mid-century California, a place that had wanted only beginnings. "I am still caught in that longing for that same utopia my parents were longing for by coming out West," he once said.

He wondered if anyone believed in photographs anymore. "Yet, in fact, we do," he said. "There's always a photograph that will wound us still, that will ... make us feel something painful or embarrassing. It's because of the intimacy of photographs."

When Larry Sultan died in 2009 at the age of 63, over 400 people attended his memorial service. They came because Sultan had made so many powerful and beautiful objects. They happened to be photographs.

Larry Sultan: Here and Home will be at LACMA through March 22, 2015. More images from the exhibition are at California Sunday Magazine, where a different version of this essay first appeared.

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