I grew up in the Maryland suburbs, in a town that, despite certain charms (an abundance of trees, a small creek in the closest park, excellent Chinese food) is, in the unwooded areas, one of the most aesthetically empty places in the world. Not ugly, just empty, devoid of anything that might catch the eye, a half-rendered SimCity of offices, strip malls, mcmansions, and new-construction apartments.
In the void that is the American suburb, the eye, perhaps out of necessity, turns towards the domestic interior. Family drama, languid sunlight, shapes in the clouds, patterns in the carpet, a curtain’s folds, a reflection in a window—these micro-moments, much more than the oppressively empty serialism which contains them, become the aesthetic world of the suburbanite.
So it is with Larry Sultan’s magnum opus, his hybrid photo-book, memoir, interview, archive-digging work Pictures From Home from 1992. Sultan’s aesthetic sensibility, his masterful treatment of light and color, his fixation on the family, all speak to a suburban childhood and adolescence. Yancey Richardson showed a selection of ten photographs from Pictures From Home, all luxuriously enlarged and masterfully printed. So much of the power of Sultan’s work, however, comes from the accompanying text and the mingling of his photographs with images from his family’s personal photo and home-movie archives. The text and the images together tell the story not only of Sultan’s relationship with his parents and the shifting, persistent, and recurrent experience of childhood, but also of his parents’ relation to one another, the social and economic degradations of the Reagan years, aging, obsolescence, and death.
Here, the ten photographs were extracted from that context and presented purely as images. On the one hand, this choice diminished the emotional power of the work. On the other, it allowed us to momentarily forget about Sultan the son and concentrate on Sultan the photographer (inextricable as the two may be to Sultan’s project).
In the blown-up format, the richness of Sultan’s vision is almost overwhelming. Upon entering, you were greeted by Business Page (1985), which depicts Sultan’s father seated, reading a newspaper’s business page. Only his hands and legs are visible – the rest of him is hidden by the paper, glowing golden in the window light, transparent like a slide but opaque enough to hide the father’s face. In the context of the book, the image contains all the pathos of an aging and recently laid-off man clinging to the world from which he has been forcibly ejected. In the context of the gallery show, it is an incredible formal reduction of the portrait to the most essential elements: light, shadow, sitter – the sitter’s absent visage replaced by the newspaper, a metonymic stand-in for the psychodrama of living at the end of one’s economic productivity in a country in which economic productivity is the raison d’être of life itself.
Though his father was Sultan’s main subject, he was also tenderly and keenly aware of the effects that aging, economic obsolescence, and the false idyll of the patriarchal family home had on his mother, the ways in which it both erased and subordinated her while simultaneously providing certain outlets for creativity and care. Though she figures more prominently in the book, here she was the prime subject of only one image, My Mother Posing (1984). She is elegantly dressed, standing pressed against a lime green wall in the right third of the frame staring at Sultan’s camera. Her husband occupies the left side of the frame – seated, watching a baseball game, his back obliquely turned to the camera. Between the two is the center of the frame, an empty stretch of wall. So much can be gleaned from the look of quiet resignation on Sultan’s mother’s face, from the care with which she’s made herself up, from his father’s broad back, and most poignantly, from the compositional emptiness between them. It is a heartbreaking photograph, one which conveys its undeniable pathos through Sultan’s expert formal choices, elevated, as always, by his unparalleled eye for color (lime green, cream, pink, glowing white – an era’s palette condensed).
Early on in Pictures From Home, Sultan writes 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.” Every photograph, Roland Barthes observed, tells us: “this will be and this has been.” In Empty Pool (1991), we see Sultan’s father standing shirtless, gazing down into an empty pool, grayer and thinner than in earlier pictures. Behind him, palm trees and identical homes dot a manicured green landscape; sprinklers burst with plumes of water. This is an image of a man, nearing the end of his life, gazing into the abyss.