Larry Sultan was an American photographer from the San Fernando Valley in California. He taught at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1978 to 1988 and at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco from 1989 to 2009.
Sultan's books include Evidence (1977) with Mike Mandel, Pictures From Home (1992) and The Valley (2004). A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, his work is exhibited in museums in the United States.
Life and work
Sultan was born on July 13, 1946, in Brooklyn, New York to a Jewish family. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley, near Los Angeles, California, where his parents moved when he was an infant. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a bachelor's degree in political science, and received a master's degree in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in San Francisco.[
He started his career in the 1970s as a conceptual photographer. In 1977, he published a collection of photographs he found in corporate and government archives called Evidence with fellow photographer Mike Mandel. The New York Times characterized Evidence as "a watershed in the history of art photography." The two men also created billboards aimed at slowing down road traffic. He then published Pictures From Home, a collection of photographs taken of his parents in the San Fernando Valley from 1982 to 1992, whose role was to question societal expectations of gender and aging. His 2004 assignment for Maxim, which consisted of photographs of middle-class residences rented by the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley, led to another photographic series called The Valley. He photographed Paris Hilton for Interview in his parents' bedroom in his childhood home.
From my MFA dissertation
Denoted and connoted signs
"In his seminal work, The Photographic Message, Roland (Barthes (1978) explains that the signs within photographic images can be interpreted literally or denoted. Barthes suggests that other meanings might be inferred or connoted.
The image of Larry Sultan’s parents in his Pictures from Home project denotes an ageing couple sitting on a bed. To the viewer, the towels on the bed could connote a despairing couple in a retirement home. Yet we know from Sultan’s father that the work, which was part of a ten-year project, was highly constructed in their comfortable Palm Springs home, and that the parents were under strict instructions not to smile.
"All I know is that you have some stake in making us look older and more despairing than we really feel ... I really don’t know what you are trying to get at ... you are not procrastinating are you, waiting for me to die so that your book has a dramatic ending? ... And listen, I hope you’re not going to end your book with one of those pictures of despair. Maybe I’m a little bored, but I’m not melancholy ... waiting for death. I think that’s your fantasy ... honestly, I’m happy to help you with your project, but for the most part that’s not me that I recognize in those pictures" (Sultan 1986)
Larry Sultan’s work blurs the line between documentary, fiction and biographical, but unlike Gregory Crewdson, Sultan uses real family members instead of actors. His father’s comments, above, highlight the difficulty faced by artists making work with their families. It can be more challenging to represent a lifestyle from the inside unless it is purely autobiographical in the style of Nan Goldin’s very personal and intimate work with her friends.
The majority of the deeply personal pictures Sultan took of his parents for this book were from a side or rear angle viewpoint, although a few taken of his mother feature direct gazes. With these images, he was able to avoid sentimentality yet still create ambiguity through fiction. As a baby boomer himself, Sultan was one of the early proponents of this style, producing work where it is difficult to distinguish between what the picture shows and what it explains.
Interestingly, the thesaurus gives synonyms of connoted as imply, suggest, indicate, signify, have overtones of, have undertones of, hint at, give a feeling of, have an aura of, have an atmosphere of, give the impression of, smack of, be associated with, allude to."