Larry Sultan. Photo: Kelly Sultan.
Larry Sultan, California Photographer, Dies at 63
Published: December 14, 2009
Larry Sultan, a highly influential California photographer whose 1977 collaboration, “Evidence” — a book made up solely of pictures culled from vast industrial and government archives — became a watershed in the history of art photography, died on Sunday at his home in Greenbrae, Calif. He was 63.
The cause was cancer, said his wife, Katherine, who is known as Kelly.
In the mid 1970s using a grant and a letter of introduction from the National Endowment for the Arts, Mr. Sultan and Mike Mandel, who had met as students at the San Francisco Art Institute, somehow managed to persuade several large companies, agencies and research institutions like the Bechtel Corporation, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the San Jose Police Department and the United States Department of the Interior to let them rummage through their documentary photo files.
Highly influenced by the West Coast brand of Conceptualism then percolating out of places like the California Institute of the Arts, both men were interested, as Mr. Mandel later said, in exploring photography as “more than just the modernist practice of fine-tuning your style and way of seeing.” The pictures they chose from the archives, out of the hundreds of thousands they examined, were a strange, stark, sometimes disturbing vision of a late-industrial world: a space-suited figure sprawled face down on a carpeted floor; a car consumed in flames; a man holding up a tangle of weeds like a trophy; a shaved monkey being held down by a gloved hand.
Some of the images seemed to have been picked for their uncanny resemblance to installation art being made at the time. But the 59 photos published, with no captions to explain what they showed or where they came from, pursued a much broader, Duchampian agenda of harnessing found photographs for the purposes of art while using them as a way to examine the society that produced them. The critic Kenneth Baker of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the project demonstrated brilliantly the degree to which “we have no calculus to unravel relations between what a picture shows and what it explains.”
Along with other artwork using vernacular photographs, like that of Michael Lesy in his book “Wisconsin Death Trip” and of Richard Prince, the project, first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, opened broad new avenues for photography that have since been explored by major museums and by artists like Christian Boltanski and Carrie Mae Weems.
Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Sultan was raised mostly in Los Angeles, where his family moved when he was an infant and where his father worked as a traveling salesman and later as a vice president for the Schick Safety Razor Company.
Not initially interested in photography, Mr. Sultan studied political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara and later earned a master’s degree in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute. Before he and Mr. Mandel began working on “Evidence,” they collaborated on another project in which they bought space on billboards around Los Angeles and posted traffic-slowing Dada-esque messages. One bore the announcement “Oranges on Fire,” and showed two cartoonish arms holding a bunch of flaming oranges.
For more than a decade beginning in the early 1980s, Mr. Sultan, who became a professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, worked on a project about his mother and his father, who had been forced into early retirement. Using stills from home movies along with lush, colored-saturated pictures he took of his parents, the resulting book, “Pictures From Home,” was a deeply personal document but one that continued Mr. Sultan’s lifelong mission of exploring photography’s fictions.
Mr. Sultan’s father, Irving, speaking of a picture of himself in a suit sitting on the edge of a bed with a vacant stare on his face, related how his son had instructed him not to smile and had created a portrait that the elder Mr. Sultan felt was much more about the photographer than the photographed.
“ ‘Any time you show that picture,’ ” Mr. Sultan said his father told him, “‘you tell people that that’s not me sitting on the bed looking all dressed up and nowhere to go, depressed. That’s you sitting on the bed, and I am happy to help you with the project, but let’s get things straight here.’ ” His parents died not long after the work was completed.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Sultan is survived by two sons, Max and Will, both of Greenbrae; and two brothers, Michael, of Pacific Palisades, Calif., and Kenneth, of Santa Barbara.
In the 1990s, Mr. Sultan began to photograph in the San Fernando Valley, near when he went to high school, shooting suburban homes that were being rented as sets for pornographic movies. Sandra S. Phillips, the photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said that while the work, called “The Valley,” was “nominally about the industry of adult sexual fantasy, the true subject of Sultan’s pictures is how photography is used in the construction of that fantasy.”
Writing in LA Weekly about the work in 2004, Mr. Sultan observed of one particular set: “The furnishings and objects in the house, which have been carefully arranged, become estranged from their intended function. The roll of paper towels on the coffee table, the bed linens in a pile by the door, the shoes under the bed are transformed into props or the residue of unseen but very imaginable actions. Even the piece of half-eaten pie on the kitchen counter arouses suspicion.”