Extra Ordinary Life
Larry Sultan wanted to make beautiful, powerful objects that happened to be photographs. He wanted them to measure how an ordinary life was lived against how that life was dreamed. The best of them depict the San Fernando Valley.
He was obsessed by memory and its disappointments. The home of his memories, where he located his longing and his nostalgia, was mid-century Los Angeles, notoriously a city of suburbs. That’s where my home is, although I’m less nostalgic.
Sultan first became known in the 1970s for collaborating on a collection of found photographs from the files of aerospace companies and government agencies. He once called himself a forensic photographer. Unquestionably, he was a meticulous observer, but I think his work is heartbreaking. He kept coming back to home, where things are awful and tender.
He carefully posed his aging parents in snapshot tableaux and staged Latino day workers in empty fields among new tract houses to recapture the half-finished, half-raw terrain of his boyhood. In novels and movies, those suburbs are conventionally regarded as either appalling or ridiculous. Sultan showed them without any irony. His series Pictures From Home unsettles suburban stereotypes by off-centering the clichés. In The Valley, his series on the business of pornography, the photographs avoid showing the mechanics of sex, then become erotic, and, finally, end in boredom. His riffs on the ordinary are dark and troubled and compassionate.
Sultan never lost his faith in what photographs could do. But as they became more weightless and ephemeral, he wondered if we could believe in them anymore. He still continued, until shortly before his death in December 2009, to make them beautifully, powerfully.