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The Pleasures of Doubt
by Jeff Weinstein
FEBRUARY 11, 2010 TAGS:
Listen to the PODCASTAsk the proverbial person on the street to name a famous painting, and chances are you’ll get an answer, whether it’s Andy’s “Marilyn” or Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.” Yet ask that person to name an important photograph, and silence is all you’ll receive.
What about work by the recently deceased Irving Penn or his sometime rival, Richard Avedon? Both men straddled magazines and museums, but neither can claim a signature image or has leapt indisputably into the popular imagination. (Diane Arbus and her black-and-white “Twins” have come close, but aren’t there yet.) Sure, some photos are iconic because of their content and what they have come to symbolize: raising a flag at Iwo Jima, for example, or that same Miss Monroe with her white pleated skirt blown up by a blast of subway air. But photos as art, and photographers as artists, are a much harder sell.
Photographer and teacher Larry Sultan died in December at age 63, and although a few newspaper obituaries surfaced -- obits themselves are a melancholy measure of fame -- Sultan should be a lot better known. A bit of artistic irony is at play here, because the “accidental,” anti-masterpiece nature of his best work, which has acted to muffle his renown, may ultimately guarantee it.
Born in Brooklyn but raised in postwar Los Angeles, Sultan studied art at a time when abstract painting and sculpture had been vanquished, it seemed, by an explosion of styles that embraced either cool Conceptual systems or hot Pop presentation. Evidence, a suite of photos that is Sultan’s first significant achievement, now seems so obvious that its stunning originality is easy to overlook. The work influenced photographers in and out of the art world for decades, but not because of Sultan’s extraordinary lensmanship. In fact, not a single piece of Evidence was shot by him.
In the mid-’70s, Sultan and artist buddy Mike Mandel spent two years perusing thousands upon thousands of anonymous industrial photographs from corporate and government files, gleaning 50 specimens that, without captions or context, portrayed alien situations and alarming consequences with an impact as puzzling as it is wrenching.
A Ford Thunderbird, passenger door open, burns fiercely in a dirt lot. Near-disaster? Aborted test? A handsome mustached man clad in what looks to be long underwear with cords or wires attached stands helpless in a lab, wary and disconsolate. Concrete steps and the porch of a clapboard house are shot in Weegee crime-scene light, vacant, dirty, yet significant -- if we only knew why.
Printed expertly as a small art book and shown in 1977 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Evidence made its initial point easily: Nothing is what it seems. However, the project links directly to Duchamp’s wine rack and urinal, and the haphazard world it constructed was filled, perversely, with oddball lyricism and even a welcome beauty. Viewers were witnessing the birth of Conceptual photography, to be sure, but one that depended upon the traditional skills of photo editing.
Photographs without identifying information allow random dreams, but photos embedded in text? Sultan’s second masterwork is another book, Pictures From Home, published in 1992. It carries a first-person emotional weight that some see as inimical to high art, but Sultan’s direct voice adds the engagement and intricacy that photo-based artworks crave in a digital age. In this volume, he creates a family portrait with snapshots and sneaky found images, his own Arbus-y color shots of his echt-suburban parents, and long strings of comments by father, mother and himself. With all that, the book is ultimately about two entirely different things: the irresistible magnetism of the planet called Los Angeles, and the fugitive nature of identity.
Sultan’s father, who was a Schick razor-blade bigwig until he was fired for wanting to stay in L.A., never understood what his son did: “You shoot thirty rolls of film until you get one or two pictures you like.” In the text Sultan tells him that the ones he does like “trouble me more than all the ones that are filed away.” Dad accuses him, he says, of photographing his mother in a way “that had less to do with her than with my own stereotypes of how people age.”
Dad hates how his son makes him look, but tries to be kind. Son writes that the images have another truth. Knowing fathers and sons, artists and models, can anyone -- any photo -- be believed? You may delight in Sultan’s expert studies of Dad’s curtain-silhouetted golf swing or Mom’s satin blouse and skinny shanks, but because of the he-said-she-said context in which they’re presented, you must question their ability to capture any simple meaning. Sultan’s photos tease, please, and may very well lie; the accumulation of images and commentary consolidates our doubt. In the case of Conceptual humanist Larry Sultan, only intimate conflict and concomitant affection ring true.
Jeff Weinstein, deputy director of the University of Southern California-Annenberg Getty Arts Journalism Program, writes about culture and gay issues for artsjournal.com/outthere.
Listen to the PODCAST
Obit Speaks featuring Krishna Andavolu talking with writer Jeff Weinstein about his remembrance of photographer Larry Sultan who died in December 2009. Sultan, whose two major bodies of work helped birth conceptual photography, reveled in ambiguity.
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