Larry Sultan: The king of colour photography

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Uncanny and tender, Larry Sultan's work captures suburban West Coast America – from the green lawns of Palm Springs to San Fernando Valley's porn-film industry

Photography tends to deliver an exaggerated account, revealing the familiar with an unfamiliar and unsettling degree of detail – like the experience of listening to a recording of your own voice. When the late American photographer Larry Sultan made a series of pictures of his parents in their home, he was presented not only with the distortions made through the camera lens, but by his lens onto their life, too.

Traditionally, the photographer would attempt to photograph unobtrusively, supposedly recording real life as it unfolded. Instead, Larry persuaded his parents to enact specific poses for him, everyday scenes of the everyday, which he set up with varying degrees of their cooperation and enthusiasm. He staged pictures of them reading in bed, talking through the kitchen window, fixing the vacuum, and arguing over the shopping. Shot on medium format film with careful use of light, the high-production, richly coloured photographs took the intimate and private to another, more public, level, exposing his parents and their home to the sharp scrutiny of the camera.

Originally published as a book titled Pictures from Home, in 1992, it included Larry's photographs as well as family snaps, stills from his father's home movies and other family pictures, interspersed with observations from Larry and his parents commenting on their experience of being photographed by him. Unlike the typically passive subjects most people become under the gaze of the lens, Irving and Jean Sultan, while encouraging their son in his work, were able and ready to make their own response.

The most magical and redeeming quality of photography, especially given the vulgar and superficial way it is so often employed, is that a photograph will reveal, subtly or otherwise, how the photographer was engaging with the subject. Our reading of family pictures is the most sophisticated of all, because our familial relationships are the most complicated, critical and contrary of all.

Irving was obsessed with golf, so in one picture Larry photographed him in his shorts, practising a swing in the living room. It seemed the perfect tableau vivant. Irving stands barefoot on the lush green carpet, the television on, the sunny Californian garden visible through the wall of net curtains. But the tough, determined countenance of this patriarch is undermined by his frail old legs. Irving's feedback was as revealing as the photograph: "It's such a shitty swing that I cringe every time I see it".

Just as Larry photographed his parents as actors in these tableaux, so their home became a set, only rendered with more high-key definition by the colour film than would be noticeable in normal life. Photography does that – it stares. The colour and pattern of their curtains, the wallpaper, the ornaments on the kitchen table, the clutter on his father's desk; examined by the camera, these take on an arresting appearance, transforming their home into an extraordinary habitat. And yet, this was his parents' home, the site where all those fraught hopes, understandings and misunderstandings, securities and insecurities, would be encountered over and over again, in an endless search, a longing, for a resolution of family and home.

Some years later, Larry Sultan was commissioned by a magazine to photograph a day in the life of a pornographic film director. He found that they were using similar houses in the same part of the San Fernando Valley as film sets. The very places furnished for the dramas of family life would become, temporarily, the settings for the "uncontrollable desires of delivery boys, baby sitters, coeds and cops" and their film crew. Intrigued, he photographed around the edge of the sets, the bland suburban decor disrupted by items of film equipment and the actions of the sex actors, often barely visible but lurking in the photographs. Whatever the poles of fascination and horror engendered by the decor of this lifeless suburban comfortable living, they are overshadowed by the grim reality of the pornography industry.

In his final body of work, completed shortly before he died last year, Larry Sultan photographed migrant Hispanic workers in the Bay Area of San Francisco, near where he lived. Often undocumented migrants, they gather at specific locations in the early morning – builders' merchants, freeway off-ramps, etc – and stand around, hoping to be hired for the day. Larry would explain his purpose and hire them to act in his tableaux. Always set within a broader landscape, his Hispanic actors would occupy the margins of the American Dream, performing daily tasks outside the village, away from the homes, wandering in a homeland that excludes them.

In Antioch Creek 2008, a man in workwear sits beside a massive plum tree. It's drenched in pink blossom which shines against the blue sky and covers the ground in a sea of petals. He appears lost in thought. Behind him, on the other side of a high wire fence, are some buildings, and a blood-red shrub. He looks both at one with the scene and estranged within it, like someone who has wandered into someone else's dream. Some would say that dreams are what you grow out of; for others, they are what you work towards.

'Katherine Avenue', by Larry Sultan, is published by Steidl, £45. The book accompanies an exhibition at Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne, Germany (galeriezander.com) which runs until 22 August

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor