Larry Sultan’s father, Irving, hated the photograph of him sitting on his bed in a dark blue suit, tense, staring straight ahead. He put the suit on because his son, who had just begun photographing him obsessively, asked him to. He sat on the bed because he needed to rest. It was like being an actor on a film set, and then seeing cameras start to roll when you were taking a break–entirely unfair. It also was not a photograph about him. The New York Times obituary for Sultan, who died in 2009 at age 63, quotes Irving reprimanding his son: “[Y]ou tell people that that’s not me. . . . That’s you sitting on the bed.”
Sultan’s photographs of his father, and often his mother, in their Southern California home read as self-portraits even if you do not know how Irving felt. The point of looking so closely at his parents, quirky, charismatic and probably hot-tempered, seems to be to understand his own tastes and origins. Pictures from Home (1984-1994) may be the most memorable series Sultan ever did, and in the artist’s LACMA retrospective, organized by curator Rebecca Morse and on view through March 22, it’s hard to move on from the galleries that hold it.
The first series you see when you enter the show, though, is Sultan’s final one, Homeland (2006-2009), of day laborers against suburban landscapes. He hired the laborers, then took them to vacant lots or un-landscaped yards in the San Fernando Valley. The lighting and staging is exquisite: men carrying dishes of food across an overgrown field in late afternoon sun, men standing languorously, staring out of a batting cage mid-day. But the sentimental prettiness would give the wrong impression of why he is an interesting artist. His sense of light, color, and composition were, in his best work, not the main point but tools to give intimate views into strange, specific worlds.
Pictures from Home follows Homeland, then transitions into Evidence. A project Sultan completed in the late 1970s with artist Mike Mandel, Evidence involved requesting access to multiple government and corporate archives then culling them for compelling images of politicians, fires or medical patients. The artists sequenced the photographs and then published them in a book that included no contextual information. It became a landmark in conceptual photography, delving deep into strangeness and privileging uncanny, intuitive associations over authorship and narrative.
The show’s final few galleries feature, among other things, The Valley, photographs of porn stars and their surroundings. Sultan, who began this project in the late1990s, would spend all day on set, getting bored but also becoming more familiar with the details: the way an actress holds her robe shut between shoots, the weirdness of neighbors’ windows facing a set.
It is rare that ordering a show chronologically actually seems like the better option. But in this case, it might have been more affecting to start at the beginning, to see Sultan and Mandel grappling with how to represent “official” documentation of their cultural moment; then to see Sultan mining his perceptions of his parents; then on to porn sets and flashy stars. After spending time in these self-contained worlds Sultan excavated, you would encounter the measured beauty of Homeland, with the laborers traversing landscapes, and you might be better primed to appreciate the photographer’s urge to zoom out on bigger vistas.