Larry Sultan – LACMA Gallery Visit (6/28/15)

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  Peter Thottam – GALLERY REPORT, 07/03/2015

  EXHIBIT ARTIST & TITLE: “Larry Sultan: Here and Home” / LOCATION: LACMA’s BCAM, Level 2 (Exhibit Dates Nov. 9, 2014–   July 19, 2015)

On June 28th  I attended LACMA’s “Larry Sultan: Here and Home: which is a major retrospective of California photographer Larry Sultan’s photo  work from 1946 to 2009.  It was an unexpected treasure that mapped with many of my own professional & personal interests in both Documentary &  Street Photography as well as my interest in arts involving the immigrant community/experience in the broader Los Angeles area.  The exhibition  includes over 200 photographs ranging from Sultan’s conceptual & collaborative works with other photographers (mainly Mike Mandel) during the late  1960s/1970s to Sultan’s own solo works during the 1980s and 1990s/2000s.

 Brief biographical paragraph – Born in New York in 1946, Sultan grew up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.  He studied and received a  BA focused on political science from UCSB followed by a Master’s in Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in San Francisco.  Initially a   xonceptual photographer, by 1977 Sultan had published a collection of photographs he found in corporate and government archives called “Evidence” which were called by the NY Times “a watershed in the history of art photography.”  Sultan later went on to publish “Pictures from Home” which focused on family/parental photos (San Fernando Valley) and on questioning themes of age and gender.  Later work also focused on San Fernando’s Valley but with more of thematic focus on middle-class of photographs of middle-class residences rented by the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley, led to another photographic series called The Valley.

Mr. Sultan was eventually hired as an Instructor of Photography at the San Francisco Art Institute (1978-88).  After this, he then taught from 1989 to 1999 at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco where he was also Chair of the Photography Department from 1993 to 1999.

I was impressed with the sophistication and authentic candor in Sultan’s realistic look at themes of family & home, immigration, the Porn Industry, modern American consumer life, and the arc of photography of real people.    The exhibit on the second floor (in the Broad gallery) had about five major bodies of work represented.  These included Evidence (1977) (collaboratively done w/ Mike Mandel), Swimmers (1978–81); Pictures from Home (1982–92); The Valley (1998–2003); and Homeland (2006–2009).   I took my time examinging his gallery and reading the explanations that accompanied the frame blowups of his photographic slices of Americana through the lens of Los Angeles – family & workers & industry venues in the San Fernando Valley.  The art photo exhibit also had a cool study hall with self-guiding photo kiosks and books and videos regarding Sultan’s views & philosophy as both an a photographer and as an artist.

PHOTOGRAPH ANALYZED: Larry Sultan, “Batting Cage,” 2007 from the series, “Homeland” Chromogenic print, Image: 59x70in. (149.86×177.8cm) Courtesy Michal 0 © Estate of Larry Sultan


The place to begin with the above “Batting Cage” photo is part of a series focused on the immigrant community.   The image is powerful.  The four plaint clothed men stand poised, existentially ‘stranded’.   They are all wearing “earth” colors.  Salt of the Earth comes to mind as a film analog.   The photo’s cage captures the angst and their turned backs and looks of resignation are also strange, dream-like, and deeply sad.  The men are plain.  Caged.  Anonymous and hooked up in a fenced bounded area that they cannot escape in.

They are also all looking away, gazing on a distant past world that is out of reach.  Anonymous men hooked up to a sea of wires boxed walls/fences. It is, in some sense, an aggregate of mini-prisons.  Each man with his own tortured past.

This photo is part of Homeland (2009), Sultan’s final body of work.  It is contextualized by its display where it is part of a series of very large prints, which picture Hispanic day laborers toiling away in California landscapes on the cusp of suburban tract homes.  They are somber, romantic photos.   Sultan drew from his own memories to pose the men, who look like each one could be anyone of a number of Latino immigrant workers hear in LA County, working in a baseball park or stringing lights on a tree, cleaning after tourists on some tourist boat in some tourist attraction, or working at a restaurant cleaning dishes or carrying food in dishes.

The photo’s four personas are mundane but their gazes are rich and spectacular.  The photo screams a loss of identity & a pervasive sense of limbo that captures well one of Larry Sultan’s central life photography themes: displaced person-hood. It is a window into the men’s souls and their individual loneliness linked to their being immigrants in foreign landscapes/cages, taken away from home worlds that are now distant pasts.

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