Why Larry Sultan’s Staged Pictures of Parents and Porn Stars Feel So Personal

A show at SFMOMA features photographs of the artist's family and hometown

Dad with Golf Clubs, from the series Pictures From Home, 1987.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
My Mother Posing for Me, from the series Pictures From Home, 1984.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
Discussion, Kitchen Table, from the series Pictures From Home, 1985.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
Business Page, from the series Pictures From Home, 1985.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
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Practicing Golf Swing, from the series Pictures from Home, 1986.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
Batting Cage, from the series Homeland, 2007.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
Sunset, from the series, Pictures from Home, 1989.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
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Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Oranges on Fire, 1975.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series Evidence, 1977.
Courtesy Estate of Larry Sultan/Casemore Kirkeby and Mike Mandel/Robert Mann Gallery
Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series Evidence, 1977.
Courtesy Estate of Larry Sultan/Casemore Kirkeby and Mike Mandel/Robert Mann Gallery
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Canal District, San Rafael, from the series Homeland, 2006.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
Backyard Hercules, from the series Homeland, 2009.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
Boxers, Mission Hills, from the series The Valley, 1999.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
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Sharon Wild, from the series The Valley, 2001.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan
Larry Sultan, Woman in Curlers, from the series The Valley, 2002.
Courtesy Casemore Kirkeby and Estate of Larry Sultan

Larry Sultan was born in Brooklyn in 1946, but moved with his family as a young child to the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles. The artist, who died in 2009, always said that he had no memory of New York, and that Los Angeles was his home.

Home was an important theme for Sultan, a subject that inspired his best pictures. Sultan’s parents were Jews from Brooklyn who joined a huge migration west in search of some of the things that California has always represented—everything from sunshine to golf courses to a new identity. And they found a lot of those things there, although there was trouble in paradise, as Sultan’s pictures show.

The artist’s photographs, on view in the galleries of the vast San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the exhibition “Here and Home,” range from the satirical to the public and from engineering archives to the deeply personal. Through SFMOMA’s galleries, we follow his path to those personal pictures. Sultan typically showed his early satirical work on billboards, and art galleries didn’t want any part of it. With another photographer, Mike Mandell, he became an archivist, exhibiting photos taken by the federal government for NASA stations near the Bay Area. Eventually he returned home to Los Angeles, to take pictures of his family and his neighbors.

“Photography was a natural outgrowth,” Sultan said in an interview done in 2003 for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is excerpted in the last gallery of the SFMOMA show. “Endlessly looking at the world…I found a way of having a profession that seemed consistent with my personality.”

“Few people make a living as an artist,” Sultan said, “so instead of conforming to the model of what you should do, just get the demons out of one’s system, all the pleasures and all the fantasies, and run with it. That’s been terrible for my career, but wonderful for my soul.”

When Sultan returned home to his parents’ house, he went to work on his 1983-92 series “Pictures from Home,” a compendium of stills remixed from home movies to which he added posed scenes of his father and mother (separate and together) swinging golf clubs and watching television. The parents dressed the part of prosperous Californians, yet the mood is elegiac and muted. Sultan’s father was a self-made success, an orphan from Brooklyn who worked his way up the corporate ladder as a sales executive for Schick Razors. When the company relocated, and he chose to stay in California, the man who looked very much like his artist son never worked again. Both parents collaborated as Sultan staged images of their lives. Among the project’s inspirations was An American Family (1973), a once-famous reality show/documentary about the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara.

“I felt that family was one of the most complicated unnerving institutions,” said Sultan, “and yet it’s the last institution that anyone believes in. We don’t believe in the government, we don’t believe in the church, certainly we don’t believe in the bank. The family still has a pull. It’s a very interesting place.”

When Sultan took those family pictures around to galleries and museums, hardly anyone would look at them. Anything to do with family was considered a theme more appropriate for women. But eventually curators saw the emotion in those personal pictures. Today, the photographs feel as iconic as Willy Lohman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, in a radically different palette.

The Valley wasn’t just home to Sultan as a child and his parents. The houses that were empty during the day, at least some of them, became home to crews shooting pornographic films looking for locations that looked like real homes. We see pictures drawn from a series, The Valley, in the exhibition, with ordinary interiors and terraces that look like any other suburban setting, except that porn stars who aren’t wearing much look into Sultan’s camera. But Sultan didn’t have a hidden lust for this subject; his introduction to the scene came when he got an assignment from an English publisher to photograph the subject of “great jobs,” one of which was to act in pornographic films. He went to those initial porno shoots with his wife.

The film locations in suburban homes were ideal for Sultan’s observation. They were empty houses meant to look like homes where porn stars, cast as ordinary people, acted out their fantasies, all for the secret pleasure of an audience out there somewhere. These performers were real people in the process of acting out an unreal kind of fiction in the homes of other real people who weren’t there.

The genre of the backstage photo that begins to reveal the person behind the mask is a staple of modern photography. At SFMOMA right now, another selection of pictures that deal with this theme by Diane Arbus are on view in an exhibition of early images. That show that began at the Met, and is located down the hall from Sultan’s work. But while Arbus was seeking to be disturbing, Sultan’s pictures of porn shoots, even in the interiors, always feature California light and an aura of comfort, even though you suspect that some nasty things are going on.

Too comfortable? Maybe. Yet these scenes, as Sultan the documentary photographer discovered, were part of that region’s landscape. After all, when he started, “photography was just permission to do reportage.”

“The truth can be staged, and it can be found,” he said.

“Larry Sultan: Hear and Home” is on view through July 23 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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