Unforgettable: Larry Sultan

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Published August 16, 2010

 

 

Larry Sultan’s pictures are studis in contradiction; beneath their shiny Technicolor surfaces lie a brutal honesty, and exploration of the complex human condition.

In December of last year, at the age of just 63, Sultan succumbed to cancer, leaving yet another void in the photographic landscape. In the last year so many greats—Irving Penn, Sam Haskins, and Helen Levitt—have also passed. This month, in celebration of his finest images, Steidl is releasing Katherine Avenue, gathered from three main bodies of Sultan’s best know series: “Pictures from Home,” “The Valley” and “Homeland,” most of them created in the San Fernando Valley, California, where the artist grew up.

At first glance, Sultan’s images depict segments of the American Dream: imagery of his parents in their suburban home; glamorized people on a film set; idyllic landscapes where contemplative individuals perambulate. But with a closer eye, we come to understand that those individuals, in these pristine, American suburbs, are Mexican day-laborers; the shiny actors on the movie set are actually filming pornographic movies, and the melancholic faces of Sultan’s parents, hardly reflect the seemingly picturesque, post-retirement life that one anticipates.

 

 

 

 

In Reading in Bed, 1988 from the “Pictures from Home” series, we see Sultan’s parents, settled in for the night, basked in the warm, kind light that makes us want to curl up beside them. Yet they seem oblivious to each other; he reads a newspaper, she, a fashion magazine, both are separate, stagnant bodies under a camel-colored blanket, a stack of papers between them.

Another photograph, Sharon Wild, 2001, one of Sultan’s best-known images and the cover to his 2004 publication, The Valley, we see a lithe, peroxide-blond, woman, perched forlornly on the edge of an obtrusively filthy mattress. The room around her lacks personal effects, yet two suitcases sit beside her, prompting questions Sultan preferred to leave unsolved. Complete, complex, and all together challenging, Katherine Avenue is a pristine final chapter in Larry Sultan’s legacy.