Larry Sultan’s surreal scenes of 1980's SoCal suburbia

Larry Sultan’s surreal scenes of 1980's SoCal suburbia

Revealing the idiosyncratic flow of ordinary life, Sultan's portraits of his parents in the 1980's captured the American Dream and revolutionised narrative photography.

In the late 1940s, Larry Sultan’s (1946-2009) parents, Irving and Jean, traded in their fifth-floor walk up apartment in Brooklyn for the mythic promise of the American Dream. They went west, settling the family in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles. 

Embracing mid-century American bliss, they made home movies with a Super 8 camera, chronicling their lives under the California sun. “They took turns with the camera, staging different scenes like trimming the weeds and mowing the lawn – projecting their hopes and fantasies onto film,” says Kelly Sultan, Larry’s wife. “Larry was well aware of the theatre of the home and these projected roles that everybody was playing, and it was a huge fascination for him.”

Practicing Golf Swing, 1986.

Fixing the Vacuum, 1991.

My Mother Posing, 1984.

After honing his gift sifting through voluminous archives with Evidence, his 1977 collaboration with Mike Mandel, Sultan turned his incisive eye to his parents. He returned to their home movies, searching for isolated stills that suggested a deeper psychological subtext at work. 

“Larry never accepted anything on face value, which is what allowed him to be fascinated with the complexity of daily life. He would challenge himself to find what he was missing, that discrepancy between longing and what their lives were providing,” says Kelly. 

“He had a mix of confidence, anxiety and insecurity that allowed him to pursue things he didn’t understand. That fed into his interest in making images that seemed to be about nothing, but had so much ambiguity, mystery, delight and humour that made you keep looking.”

Dad With Raft, 1987.

Business Page, 1985.

Los Angeles, Early Evening, 1986.

Sultan began collaborating with his parents to create Pictures from Home – a seminal body of work that transformed the landscape of contemporary photography when it was first published in 1992. Now on view at Yancey Richardson in New York, Pictures From Home: Larry Sultan brings together an intoxicating blend of spontaneous and staged photographs of his parents living in sorbet-coloured suburban splendour.

Drawn to paradox, Sultan understood the prosaic was laced with a sprinkling of the surreal. As Jews from Flatbush, Jean and Irv were blessed with a certain chutzpah (Yiddish for “extreme self-confidence or audacity”) that made them ideal collaborators for a conceptual photography project long before this practice was commonplace.

Dad on Bed, 1984.

Sunset, 1989.

“They didn’t understand what their son was doing but they wanted to be supportive,” Kelly explains. “Irv was a classic 1950’s bootstraps tough guy businessman whose approach to life was very transactional, but there was also a side to Irv that was romantic, poetic and vulnerable that he didn’t give himself permission to engage. Larry had this incredible seductive charm, tenderness, generosity and insistence that would draw people out.”

Over the past 30 years, Pictures from Home has inspired countless artists to wander barefoot through the shag carpeted memories of family and home, uncovering hidden threads not only in our stories, but in the possibilities of photography itself.

Pictures From Home: Larry Sultan is on view through April 8, 2023 at Yancey Richardson in New York. The book is published by MACK.

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