The family odyssey of Larry Sultan

Francesco Rombaldi
Yogurt Curator

reading time: 3′



When Larry Sultan embarked on Pictures from Home, he had just completed an impossible research project: mapping millions of photographs from the aerospace industry’s archives, for a project involving image reclamation and ambitious restructuring of archival semantics. The research was condensed into a narrative of 59 photographs, later edited in The Evidence with friend and co-author Mike Mandel.

It thus seems the natural consequence of such exhausting work to seek the comfort of one’s roots. Literature is full of impervious journeys and returns to one’s family background. But reality often betrays the reassuring rhetoric of the Happy Homecoming. And we find ourselves changed, grown up, crushed in our own projections and those of others.

Pictures from Home is not just an impeccable photographic project, but first and foremost an emotional bridge between Sultan and his experience.  It is the attempt to use his art as an empathic tool, to document but also feel once again his sentiments, relate to his parents.

In a deeply personal documentary work spanning over 10 years, Sultan has gathered traces from his past. Frames of old home movies, letters and memories are interspersed with elegant and evocative shots of his elderly parents.

But what lives in his photographs is a sophisticated construct.
A father and mother duet before their son’s lens, re-enactments from their daily lives. And the fragmented reproduction of their relationship in front of the camera becomes an opportunity for the artist to relive it, decipher it, re-assimilate it.

Pictures from Home is also a cross-section of a conservative and conformist America. Reaganesque and veneered. That America with thick makeup and shiny shoes that sought to control the economic west from the golf courses.

And while Sultan’s father is an iconic actor in this fantasy, his mother has the faded and coiffed beauty of a former local pageant queen.

In the representation of these archetypes, we can glimpse a subtle denunciation, a generational and cultural clash that is nonetheless mitigated by the intense gazes that meet the lens, showing family moments of placid distance or simple abandonment, in the contemplation of personal memories. Sultan’s photography cannot fail to be indulgent, despite the sharpening of his documentary sensitivity.

After all, Pictures from Home is a domestic dance, swayed by the music of emotion that is perhaps no longer frenetic but not fully resolved.

Larry Sultan’s legacy with this book is all encompassing—from the microcosm of a domestic landscape, to the contradictory character of a complex nation.
And it reminds us how a theme, albeit seemingly banal, can be endowed with an extraordinary authorial and narrative structure.

“What drives me to continue this work is difficult to name. It has more to do with love than with sociology. With being a subject in the drama rather than a witness.”
Larry Sultan

Image courtesy by Mack Books