Larry Sultan, the photographer of California suburbia who died in 2009, was enchanted by the idea of “home.” So for a long time he studied his own. His series of images of his parents, “Pictures from Home” (1983-1992), became some of his most well-known, not only for their aesthetic beauty. He posed his parents in domestic situations, reading magazines in bed, standing by their pool, holding mail in the garage – and they let themselves be posed. It was a revelatory practice at the time, the early 1980s, when documentary photography was supposed to be as straightforward as capturing what you saw. But with Sultan’s manipulation, he examined the relationship between photographer and subject – sometimes reversing the position of power usually reserved for the photographer, said his widow Kelly Sultan – and in doing so putting his own perceptions and those of the subject under a microscope.
The Milwaukee Art Museum’s latest special exhibit, “Larry Sultan: Here and Home,” is its last before the rehabbed galleries open late next month. And it’s a strong photography exhibit for the museum that’s become increasingly known for its photography curators and collection.
This is the first retrospective of Sultan’s work and at MAM it flows chronologically, beginning with Sultan’s and Mike Mandel’s “Evidence” (1975-1977) series, which originally appeared as a book. The now-famous series includes archival photos from all sorts of sources reordered and recontextualized. Without their original context, like a police report, the viewer is able to imagine her own. And, as curator Lisa Sutcliffe said on a media preview tour, you shouldn’t be afraid to laugh at the results.
After debuting “Evidence,” Sultan and Mandel studied the language of advertising, said Sutcliffe, and set out to create meaningless yet attractive billboards in the tone of a flashy ad. MAM has the original screen printing of “Oranges on Fire,” and Milwaukeeans, whether the like it or not, will get to be in on Sultan’s game. The museum will display “Oranges on Fire” on 20 billboards around town, a mildly subversive ad of their own.
Sultan later struck out on his own to create “Swimmers,” a colorful series of underwater photos of a swimming pool. Some of the images are reminiscent of “Evidence” in their straightforward representation of place – as if to say in deadpan, “here is what it found at the bottom of a swimming pool” – but they’re nonetheless striking thanks to the colorfully doughy, anonymous bodies that appear to be totally unaware.
That lack of awareness, or pretending to appear unaware, is well explored in the images of his family, seemingly captured going about the business of living in the California suburbs. Sultan’s own words provide the clearest look at the tricky act:
“I sneaked into their bedroom while my mother was taking her afternoon nap. I stood by the door for several minutes to be sure that she was asleep and then carefully tiptoed over to the bed. She was lying on her stomach with her head turned toward me. I was so apprehensive of waking her that I breathed in rhythm wit her. Standing at the foot of the bed, I realized that I had never seen the underside of her foot. I had my camera, so I photographed it. I could see the slight grass stains from walking barefoot that morning to the lake. I wanted to photograph it again and again, to use up an entire roll of film. Then it struck me that she was not really asleep, that her breathing, like mine was controlled. We were co-conspirators.”
Sultan would go on to examine the context of the suburbs, and what it means to live there, in his editorial work for magazines like Maxim and Interview. In his final project, “Homeland” (2006-2009), he hired day laborers to act as subjects in his large-scale landscape photos of the stucco and terracotta ‘burbs. By doing this, he ruminates on what “home” means in terms of the American Dream, especially for those whose access to it is greatly restricted.
There are multimedia components to the exhibit, but none are more entertaining than the last. The museum has set up a handful of iPads with hundreds of Sultan’s images on them, and then projected the iPad screens onto a blank wall. Viewers can flip through the images so that the wall’s projection of the side-by-side horizontal images is ever-changing. MAM has given the viewer the reins to recontextualize Sultan’s work, and the chance spend a few minutes imagining his process.
“Larry Sultan: Here and Home” opens tomorrow, Oct. 23 and will be on display until Jan. 24, 2016. The traveling exhibit was organized the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.