At Home With Larry Sultan

In 1992, Larry Sultan published Pictures from Home, a book nearly 10 years in the making, which paired posed photographs of his elderly parents in their suburban San Fernando Valley, California home and retirement community with found family album snapshots from Sultan’s childhood, home movie stills, and transcribed texts from Larry’s mother and father and Larry himself. Part distorted biography, part emotional dissection of the mythology of the sun-drenched, wall-to-wall carpeted, swimming pool-in-the-suburbs American Dream, Pictures from Home is a unique document of the desires and fantasies that accompany constructs of façade, family, and domestic life. It is a prime example of Sultan’s preoccupations throughout his 35-year-career making photographs.

Sultan captured the suburban Californian landscape and its symbols and signifiers with a lushness bordering on nostalgia, but retained an acute social bent and understanding of the convincing or deceiving elements of the camera. He once wrote: “Like a ventriloquist who laughs at his dummy’s jokes, I keep trying to make photographs that seduce me into believing in the image—all the time knowing better, but believing anyway.”

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Southern California, Sultan passed away from cancer in 2009. He will be the subject of his first posthumous retrospective, “Larry Sultan: Here and Home,” opening Sunday at LACMA. Grouped by body of work, the exhibition bridges Sultan’s major series by structuring a narrative centered on his exploration of displacement, home, story, found images, and the appearances and fictive nature of the photograph. “When we talk about his work, it’s not only building a narrative, but also pushing documentary practice ideas,” explains curator Rebecca Morse. “There’s so many different levels of understanding any of those images.”

Arranged in reverse chronology, the work on view is an expansive and comprehensive look at Sultan’s practice, beginning with “Evidence” (1977), a group of found black-and-white photographs, sourced and decontextualized from the archives of corporations and government agencies made in collaboration with Mike Mandel. From there it continues to Swimmers (1978-82), formally arresting underwater shots of students learning to swim; “Pictures from Home” (1983-92); “The Valley” (1997-2003), his staged photographs of the cast and crew on sets of pornographic films shooting in suburban homes; “Homeland” (2006-9), where Sultan positioned Mexican immigrants performing domestic tasks within landscapes in the San Francisco Bay Area; and a selection of Sultan’s editorial work.  The exhibition will also include a “Study Hall,” a space devoted to Sultan as both artist and teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute and California College of the Arts.