Larry Sultan, Pictures From Home

Posted in Photobooks (general) by Alec Soth on December 16, 2009

Like so many others, I was heartbroken to learn of the death of Larry Sultan. (Read obits here, here, here, here). I met Larry in 2004. He and I were showing concurrently at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery.  I was totally green and nervous as hell to be meeting one of my photographic heroes. But Larry didn’t disappoint. He was gentle, generous and real.

I ran into Larry a couple of other times over the years. In Munich we were in a group show together. We cracked jokes during a long press conference in which neither of us understood a word being said. We also talked about photography. Larry was incredibly smart about the medium. I’ve always said that there is nobody whom I’d rather have had the chance to study under.

In the wake of his passing I reread Pictures From Home. Unbelievable. Has there ever been a photographer who writes better than Sultan? I’m certain that nobody has done a better job combining text and pictures. In this regard, Pictures From Home is the absolute zenith.  Plainspoken, smart and brutally honest, it is a masterpiece of narrative photography.

A spread in Chapter Five shows this picture of Sultan’s father:

This is the text:

“I’m married and have two kids, own a house, shop in the malls, read the business section of the newspaper, take my shirts to the laundry, catch myself continually calculating my savings, and worry about dying from various terminal illnesses. Was it that different when he was forty-four? Did he feel the same intensity of doubt and confusion as I do? Was he haunted by all of the things he was unable to be?”

At the end of Chapter Six we get his father’s take on the picture:

“I don’t mean to sound so critical. I’m just trying to understand what you see in certain pictures. Like that one you took last time you were here. I can’t figure out why you asked me to dress up in a suit, write on a piece of backdrop paper as though I was giving lecture and then photograph me standing there with a pen in my hand looking confused, like I didn’t know what I was talking about? I didn’t even spell that word correctly: “it’s empathize,” not “empathy,” a verb rather than a noun.

And then Larry goes on to transcribe his conversation with his father about the picture.

Larry Sultan: That’s what I like about the picture. I thought that the error is an important detail, one that reveals a basic human quality. Do you think it diminishes you, makes you seem foolish?

Irving Sultan: I wouldn’t go that far. But that’s not the way I would have set it up. My image of someone giving a lecture is to have them project confidence and knowledge. In your picture, I look frightened by the very point I’m trying to make.

Larry Sultan: Exactly. That particular picture was inspired by the Dale Carnegie course, and by all the lectures you gave me when I was a kid. I can’t name it, but some emotion has seeped into the self that you wanted to project and caused a disturbance. I didn’t notice it when I was taking the picture, but when I saw the print, I was reminded of something you once told me, that your success and efforts have been primarily motivated by fear. Maybe there’s a little of that in the photograph. It’s like a tear in the image that shows both who you think you should be and who you are.

I was twenty-two when Pictures From Home was published. Now I’m forty (and have two kids, own a house and shop at the mall). Time marches on. Thinking about all of this and thinking about Larry, I look at the one picture I have of him. It is from Mike Mandel’s series of photographer baseball cards. Here’s Larry looking like an angel at age 29 (note the back of his card, which hauntingly echoes his father’s comments about fear):

The thing about Pictures From Home is that it is fearless. Or more accurately, Sultan faces his fears with fearlessness. From what I’ve heard, he faced his death with a similar spirit. He also left with a beautiful piece of writing. In a letter to friends, he wrote:

“After hellish days and nights in hospitals, I have chosen not to be medicalized, but, instead, be here at home. Here in this house with my family, full of sleeping kids and wrestling dogs, and French toast cooking while next door in my studio, Dru is laying out a box of prints to edit. This is where I want to be. I realize whatever grace I’m ultimately leaving with is directly linked to my deep understanding that I have led a charmed life. So many charms, and the more there are, the easier it is to let go – at least today while I write this.”

10 Responses

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  1. Moved « Viva Experimentation! said, on December 16, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    […] read it here. […]

  2. Colleen said, on December 16, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    The first place I thought back to when I heard, was the last time I saw Evidence. It was that very same show. What a loss. C.

  3. […] I ran into Larry a couple of other times over the years. In Munich we were in a group show together. We cracked jokes during a long press conference in which neither of us understood a word being said. We also talked about photography. Larry was incredibly smart about the medium. I’ve always said that there is nobody whom I’d rather have had the chance to study under. […]

  4. zellar said, on December 18, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Damn, that’s sad. And that’s beautiful.

    Pictures From Home and Evidence are two of my favorites.

    Lovely site, Alec. Lovely work, as always.

    Be well.

  5. Vincent Borrelli said, on December 21, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Hi Alec,
    Thanks for posting this. I have also been thinking about Larry and his work constantly. I can’t think of anyone who has influenced me more. I’ve also been spending a lot of time with his books, each brilliant and moving. Pictures from Home and Evidence, exemplified Larry’s profound understanding of the medium, his ability to carefully shape meaning and his sense of play. Most of all, Pictures from Home, as well as Evidence, have a quality of generosity to them… and not just that each was such a gift those of us who were influenced by them. The work itself is generous, and authentic, at its core (at least to me), much like Larry himself.

  6. J said, on January 4, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    I was extremely fortunate enough to have studied under him a little over a year ago. He has left such a warm impression on me and my art- I was so saddened by his illness and passing. Brightest stars never burn long enough–

    Thank you very much for posting his words, Alec. It means a lot to me.


  7. virginie said, on February 11, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    A bit late to react but I wanted to mention the excellent 5 minutes footage of Larry Sultan in the BBC The Genius of Photography ( which can be seen on YouTube if the DVD is not available in the state). The conversation with his father appears in it. Thank you for the baseball card.

  8. Cathy said, on February 14, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Larry was my teacher at CCAC. I have been researching all the blogs I can find since I found out about his passing. (I only found out recently that he died two months ago.) I found this blog yesterday. Thanks for having it and for mentioning Larry. I didn’t realize at the time of my studies that ‘Picture’s From Home’ was such a fresh piece of work when he talked about it. In retrospect of the early 90’s, little did we know that Larry would too be immortalized by his story. There is something there to think about. It is all left behind- story-book, pictures, parents, child. When we are gone, it is so much more a story- A piece of art that has to stand up to the test of time without the artist’s wisdom to speak about it. I can’t stop thinking of my own mortality as I mourn Larry. He was a great teacher and really separated his “artist self”, from his teacher self. Those kinds of artists are rare. I knew Joe Strummer and he was much the same. He didn’t take himself seriously. Larry was never full of himself when it came to his accomplishments. I think that is why so many people, students, etc. loved him. He was so down to earth. He was very sensory oriented and talked about all the things we take for granted quite a bit. He just knew how to communicate. He was so good at it! He was the best part of my studies. Listening to such an articulate human-being that would talk about the funniest things only those daring enough would admit. He was never afraid to say what was on his mind. His honesty was the biggest gift. That is what makes an artist successful.. I think anyway.

  9. douglas said, on March 24, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    frickin-A. That’s my first thought, as if death could be prevented, or have less meaning. Some meaning. I’m 40 this year, have 3 men who I can claim as father, – – but it was my mother who accompanied me, I seem to remember, to the “pictures from home” book signing. I have no clue how I got there, nor why I bought the book. Not a clue what he said to me while inscribing it etcetc. I try not to make a big fuss about meeting people, autographs etc. I’m make a bit more of fuss now, now that I’m older. Grasping. My mother wants me to put a book together of polaroid pictures I/we’ve taken of our Rhonda The Rheindeer over the years. I’ve been thinking Jim Goldberg “open see” as a possible template, now must reconsider using Sultan, as a second, third thought. I’m avoiding reading obituaries still. For now.

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