Tribute to Larry Sultan
By Philip Gefter
Larry Sultan was one of my closest friends. Some years ago he gave me an artist’s proof of “Sharon Wild, 2001,” from his series, The Valley, in which he documented pornographic film production in suburban homes rented out to porn industry producers in the San Fernando Valley, where he grew up. Narratives mount in his pictures of porn actors feigning desire for the camera as he pulls back the curtain on the charade. The deeper complexity of this work, though, comes from his depiction of the layers of fabrication in the act of image-making itself.
“Sharon Wild” is handsomely framed and looms large on the wall above the dining table in my apartment. At night I like to sit in my Eames chair, sip a martini before dinner, and get lost in my consciousness stream. As I think about everything and nothing, my eyes will invariably settle on Sharon Wild across the room. I sit there staring at her and she sits at the edge of the bed staring right back at me. She is a classical figure with beautiful proportions and a porcelain cast to her skin from the light. I tend to think of her as Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, wearing a pair of glass Cinderella fuck-me pumps. Or, perhaps, Kim Novak, the Hitchcock blond, gone bad.
I can imagine Larry standing in the doorway of that suburban bedroom in the San Fernando Valley, the resonance of his own parents’ bedroom making him feel like a sixteen year old all over again. Knowing him as I did, he would have riffed on that feeling, relishing the idea of a leggy blond sitting at the edge of his parents’ bed. The thrill and the sense of intimidation he would have felt looking at her, anticipating the kind of masturbatory fantasy he would not have had the experience to conjure up as a teenager. I suspect that Larry, the adult photographer in that doorway, also imagined the scene as a roadside motel room somewhere outside Vegas, say, the atmosphere crackling with sexual tension and emotional innuendo and a variety of other narrative possibilities that drew immediate reference from the films of his youth even as he stood there reading the social implications of the scene in obligatory postmodern terms.
Still, what gets me about the picture is the way Sharon sits at the edge of the bed in her skimpiest bra and panties. She looks at the camera tentatively and with vulnerability, her arms folded across her breasts elegantly, but more to the point, self-protectively. I knew Larry well enough to understand the sixth sense he had about friends and strangers, alike, with which he could read their emotional frequency regardless of what they were presenting. He also had the courage and the willingness to meet them where he sensed them to be emotionally. That’s why the balance of pretext and subtext is a tension that animates a Larry Sultan photograph.
In the case of Sharon, Larry was able to see beyond the hard bitten porn actress armor to what she may have been feeling as she sat there between takes, more exposed in the intimacy of the quiet moment in front of a stranger’s camera than when she was performing sex acts before the cast and crew. And he photographed her with tenderness, leaving her dignity intact even as he adjusted the placement of the suitcase and the drape of the sheet strewn across the ratty mattress and he turned on the lamp, all to underscore the seamy quality of the generic bedroom.
Larry died on December 13, 2009. One night during the last week of his life, I sat at my dining table and looked up at Sharon, who has been hanging on that wall for almost nine years. Suddenly, I saw something in the picture I had never seen before–an amorphous white cloud at the base of the lamp on the night table behind her. It wasn’t an object, but, rather, a ghostly little mass of white light. Now, I have never been predisposed to metaphysical or paranormal thinking, but, at that moment, I couldn’t help wondering if it might be Larry’s spirit appearing in the picture on the wall of my apartment in New York to say hello to me, and goodbye, as he lay in bed at his home in California, slowly passing from this life to the unknown.
I got up and pulled my copy of the The Valley off the bookshelf. I looked at the picture of Sharon on the cover, and there it was, the little amorphous white cloud on the night table behind her that I had never seen before. I was relieved, if not just a little disappointed, and my amusement about my own magical thinking prompted me to send a text to Larry’s wife, Kelly, asking if she would give him a kiss for me. Five minutes later the phone rang and it was Larry. His voice was weak but he greeted me as if it were just another day and asked me what I was doing. I told him about my discovery in the picture of Sharon and my fantasy about his spirit paying me a visit. He laughed and said, “That’s exactly how I feel, like a little white cloud on Sharon Wild’s night table.” Now, every time I look at Sharon, my eye goes immediately to the little white cloud to see if it is still there.
I want to be with those who know secret things or left alone. -Rilke
By Mark Alice Durant
Larry Sultan was my teacher, beginning in 1983 when I entered the graduate program in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. It is difficult to separate my first impressions of him from the sensory shift I was experiencing living in a new environment. I grew up in stingy Boston and all of the clichés of sensual and hedonistic San Francisco were fresh revelations to me. Pacific light illuminating white stucco and pastel Victorian, fog slithering under the Golden Gate Bridge, the vertigo one felt braking at stop signs at the top of impossibly steep streets, the rows of majestic palms running the length of Dolores Street, calla lillies blooming in the back yard, images of the Guadalupe painted in alleyways and dangling from rear-view mirrors, mariachi bands and aging beatniks, the treacle scent of night blooming jasmine after a night in a smoky bar.
The Art Institute welcomes you with a tiled fountain in the center of a Spanish courtyard, you can pass through a double doorway to the student gallery to behold Diego Rivera’s mural featuring the impressive heft of his backside. The graduate photography seminar met down the hall from the courtyard in Studio 16, a high-ceilinged room with huge arched windows and balconies overlooking North Beach and the marina. Once a week for the next two years the graduate students gathered here for critiques and discussion. Larry was often the seminar leader. First impressions are fleeting, fragmentary, and vivid; his boyish hair, brown leather coat, gray suede shoes (were they oxfords?), elbows on his knees while he rolled a cigarette and spoke of secret things. He quoted Aristotle, Rilke and Walter Benjamin. His critiques of student work were precise analyses punctuated by exuberant laughter; he laughed at himself, at pretension, at earnestness, at failure and success.
Professionally, Larry was between his groundbreaking collaborative Evidence and was just beginning to work on what would be his opus Pictures from Home. Having studied photography in the social humanist tradition as an undergraduate, I was woefully ignorant of seismic shift occurring in photographic practice in terms of appropriation, authorship, pastiche and irony, in other words, the whole post-modernist thing. Evidence is a modest folio of 59 photographs culled from various industrial, police and government archives. Each image appears to be highly illustrative, but lifted from their original contexts the images become strangely mute, defiantly uncommunicative. Evidence was the urtext of my epiphany that the process of photography did not end with the mounting and matting of a beautifully printed image, but that photographic meaning continually shifted in its relation to context, presentation and language.
Larry joked that now he had been labeled a post-modernist and wasn’t sure he could create emotional and sensual pictures for fear of being self-indulgent. Although he laughed about it, the dilemma was real. He demanded rigor from his work but did not want to exclude beauty. He had been photographing swimmers underwater and was deeply ambivalent about the results. He brought a box of prints to class and spread them across several tables. I thought they were lovely; pale arms reaching toward the surface, headless torsos gliding through various shades of blue, the water between bodies a kind of liquid confirmation of our connectedness. These underwater pictures made me yearn for freedom; I ached to float there among them, as if I could escape the stubborn weight of my own history. I am not sure that Larry ever exhibited those photographs but I believe that the lessons he learned from making them helped him achieve the acute elegance of Pictures From Home.
As a teacher Larry connected the dots between history, culture, material, process and personal responsibility. He taught me that being an artist is to create your own path both internally and externally. It is perhaps a strange thing to say, but not only did Larry help me envision what it meant to be an artist but I learned so much about being a man from him. Growing up, most of the men in my life were drunks and tyrants. I did not really understand at the time that part of my west coast/grad school sojourn was in part a search for a kind of maleness that I could live with. In his humor, generosity, intelligence, fierceness, and dare I say it–handsomeness–I recognized something that I deeply wanted to emulate.
When I graduated from the Art Institute in 1985, in lieu of an artist statement and based upon a vivid dream, I wrote this minor allegory. I now understand that Larry is at the heart of this image:
The ground is uneven, broken earth, shattered boulders. It is difficult to walk. The fog erases any possibility of identification. I am walking in one direction. I think the earth is ancient. There is a tall man a half-stride behind me to my left. I don’t know how long he has been with me. Even this close he is only a vague form in the thick mist. From under his cloak he pulls a trumpet. I cannot watch too closely because I am still stumbling along. He raises the horn to his lips and lets out one long beautiful cry. The mist begins to clear and I see children walking in front of me in pairs, threes and singly. They are moving along in quite a deliberate fashion. Some of them are holding hands. I feel comforted by their presence and their apparent knowledge of our destination. When the note of the trumpet fades, the fog again enshrouds. It is still difficult to walk but I continue by thinking of the sound that clears the mist and of holding hands.
nights sleeping in
Larry's studio. My last
two visits with him were two
weeks in September and three in
November/December. At the end,
I sat in his studio while he signed
prints, archived with Dru, finishing
what needed to be done for the day. He
was tired and needed to go next door to
his house. As we left he told me, "All I
want is to be here, do my work, listen to
music, have Kelly and the boys come in
and out. Oh El, isn't this the most beauti-
ful place. I am a lucky guy." I left five
days before he died, on Decemeber 13th,
2010. I was lucky to have Larry as
a best friend for 33 years. Somehow,
I thought it would be forever.