Larry Sultan: The king of colour photography

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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

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