Larry Sultan is not an easy photographer to categorize. He and Mike Mandel—they met while in graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute—created a touchstone of conceptual photography with their series “Evidence” (1975–77). But Sultan’s equally well-known “Pictures from Home” (1983–92), is autobiographical: an extended series of color portraits of his aging parents, combined with text, old snapshots, and stills from home movies.
Though Sultan spent much of his career in the Bay Area, it’s fitting that “Here and Home,” his first posthumous retrospective, is in Los Angeles; at the heart of his work is the social and cultural landscape of the San Fernando Valley, where he grew up. The exhibition includes about 200 photographs from the mid-1970s to 2009, when Sultan died at age 63.
“Evidence” was Sultan’s breakthrough project. Originally published as a book, it consists of pictures culled from the archives of such governmental and engineering entities as the Department of the Interior and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The chosen photographs are imbued with a mysterious life beyond their original documentary purpose, as in a strangely poetic image of a massive tangle of cables stretching from a hulking early computer to an office desk.
Sultan and Mandel continued to work collaboratively for over two decades after “Evidence,” making early and witty use of appropriated images. Yet Sultan on his own was a different artist. Another widely known series, “The Valley” (1998–2001), centered on porn-movie crews working in the same middle-class suburban terrain depicted in “Pictures From Home.” While more distanced than his photographs of his parents, these images of actors in offstage moments also have a strong melancholy mood. “Pornography was a decoy,” Sultan wrote, adding that he wanted viewers to feel a sense of being lost in those houses. He did go home again in his photographs, but not without a strong sense of displacement.