This Week in Photography Books: Larry Sultan

 

America is dominated by Baby Boomers and Millennials.

You know this.

My cohort, Generation X, is small by comparison, and as we’re all slackers, we get lost in those giant shadows. But we’re famous for our sense of irony, and these days, it’s a life-saver.

For instance, the one thing most people want, more than anything, is to have a long life. Nobody wants to die young, except for rock stars, but as Rock-n-Roll is dead, the rock stars are gone anyway.

People want to live as long as possible, even though that best case scenario almost always leads to illness, broken bodies, doctor bills, and some form of misery and pain.

Like I said, without irony, where would we be?

My own parents are aging, as I’m 43, and the last ten years have been a litany of ill health. My Dad had two major back surgeries, including a spinal fusion, interspersed with years of aggressive, debilitating nerve pain.

My Mom had a spinal fusion of her own, and before she’d fully recovered, she tore her achilles tendon in Mexico, and had that godawful injury as a follow up. (Though she reported her experience in the Mexican health care system was excellent, in case you’re thinking of moving to the other side of the Wall…)

It’s a challenge, watching the people you love suffer; a reminder it will be your turn soon enough. If you’re one of the lucky ones, that is, and you don’t get pre-mature cancer, or hit by a car driven into a political protest.

On the plus side, aging is meant to bestow wisdom. While our bodies degrade, no matter how many crossword puzzles we do, or superfood smoothies we imbibe, our understanding of reality often develops nuance and expertise.

Who hasn’t looked back on a younger self, thrown up one’s hands, and exclaimed to the sky, “What the fuck was I thinking?”

I know I have.

Right now, I’m focusing on a particular moment, back when I lived in San Francisco in 2001. I’d recently applied to graduate school at CCAC, (now called CCA,) and the Dean of Admissions had arranged for me to sit in on a class with superstar-photographer-professor Larry Sultan.

I brought my portfolio along, as I’d been assured he’d likely review the work, and discuss how I might fit in at the school, were I to be accepted. (I wasn’t.)

But on the day I arrived, Mr. Sultan said it was a special class, with some guest lecturers, and he wouldn’t have time to meet with me. He warmly welcomed me to stay, assuming I could learn a thing or two.

As I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, I slipped out at the first smoke break without even saying goodbye. If he couldn’t see me, my younger self thought, what was the point of sticking around?

Such a rookie mistake.

The incident played in my mind, over and over, as I walked through the singularly brilliant Larry Sultan solo show at SFMOMA back in May.

It was easily one of the best photo shows I’d seen in years, and at the end, they had a video monitor set up, with a lengthy interview with the artist.

Sadly, he passed away too-young in 2009, so it was much like hearing from a ghost. A ghost, I might add, from whom I had been too proud to learn, in the limited way I’d been offered.

I sat there for 20 minutes, easily, and this from a guy who never, ever has patience for such things. (Never. Ever.)

Thankfully, the folks at SFMOMA are pretty cool, and they’d arranged for me to preview the Mike Mandel exhibition next door, and meet the long-time curator Sandra Phillips. Even better, as I was leaving, they gave me a hot-off-the-presses copy of “Pictures from Home,” the Larry Sultan classic that was recently re-released, (or re-imagined?) by MACK in London.

Needless to say, when I showed the book to people at Pier 24 that afternoon, (after admitting I used it as a sun-shade on the blazing walk along the Embarcadero,) they looked at me like I was the messiah.

“How did you get that,” exclaimed the Assistant Director? “I’m actually thanked in the liner notes,” she said, “and I don’t have a copy yet!”

I blushed, said something about getting lucky, and realized this was a book I needed to sit with properly.

No skimming allowed.

I hope you’ll trust it’s taken 3 months to find such time, and that I busted open the green, hard-cover book as soon as I was able.

Meaning yesterday.

But there is so much text that I lay it down, and came at it today with a couple of hours set aside. Let me be clear, this is a book you need to read, not just look at the sharp photography.

“Pictures from Home” is such a great meditation on aging: of people, of dreams, and of America itself, that I’ll state outright it deserves its masterpiece status.

A more poignant, intelligent book, you are unlikely to find.

It features many of the seminal images shot during that series, made from approximately 1982-92, in addition to stills from Sultan family home movies, text by Larry Sultan, interviews with his Mom and Dad, and ephemera from their lives.

The short version of the story is that Mr. and Mrs. Sultan, Irving and Jean, moved out to Southern California in 1949, right after the War boom, in the midst of a recession. They were East Coast Jews, he from NYC, she from Jersey, and they joined the wagon train of Americans headed West towards a better life.

Eventually, Irving landed a job as a salesman for the Schick Razor company, and made his way up the corporate ladder for 20 years. It is as pure a vision of the American dream as you’re likely to find, as a Jew who briefly went by the pseudonym of John Dutton, to work in an English clothing store, was eventually embraced by the whitest of American corporate culture.

Until he wasn’t.

Turns out, Irving was spit out by Schick at 56, when he refused to move his family back East for a promotion. No matter what, he was only giving up the California sunshine if they pried it from his cold, dead hands. (RIP Irving and Jean, in addition to Larry.)

Irving never held another job, easing restlessly into a golf-strewn retirement, but Jean built a successful real estate career in his stead, allowing a feminist subtext to creep into the book as well.

In last week’s review, I admitted I found Ashley Gilbertson’s writing more compelling than his photographs. (Most of you probably preferred the pictures, but you’re not writing the review.) It certainly made me question when words communicate more effectively than images.

But this book proves how perfectly the two can complement each other, in the right hands. First person histories about scamming girls at the boardwalk, being abandoned to orphanages, taking massive risks, and developing sangfroid in our relationships take center stage, and inform the way we view each subsequent photograph.

Later on, the text begins to allude, and then outright mentions, the fact that Larry Sultan staged these photographs, believing a fictionalized version of reality can often tell more “truth” than a document.

In the fraught photo of Irving, standing in front of a white-board featuring knowledge gleaned from a Dale Carnegie course, we learn that Larry asked Irving to misuse a word, on purpose, to suggest a certain fallibility. (Empathize became empathy)

I could go on and on.
But I won’t.

This is a book best enjoyed by yourself, on your sofa, with a cup of coffee or two. (Or three, as it was with me. No blue sky today, so I needed extra energy-juice.)

The times of the great, white male are either over, or still far-too-prevalent, depending on which media outlet you read. But in this case, the idea of shrinking, until there is nothing left but time for leisure, as your aggregate life slips away, is sad but real.

I hope my parents regain their footing, and enjoy a spate of health and good fortune. But I don’t know it will happen, as aging gets us all in the end. (If we’re lucky enough to land on its doorstep.)

C’est la vie.

Bottom Line: Brilliant, re-issued classic that examines the fading American dream, and the realities of old age

To purchase “Pictures from Home,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. Yeah, we all make big-uns, especially when young. And dealing with aging parents ain’t no joke- don’t think it’s gonna be any the better for many of us, when our time comes…

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