Visual Arts


"When you photograph me, I feel everything leave me. The blood drains from my face, my eyelids droop, my thoughts disappear. I can feel my facial muscles go limp. All you have to do is to give me that one cue, 'Don't smile,' and zap. Nothing. That's what you get. What you call introspection looks to me like lost, empty, half dead."
Irving Sultan, father of well-known California-based photographer Larry Sultan, is not overly enthusiastic about the photographs his son has been taking of him and his wife, Jean, photographs that are part of Larry Sultan's ten-year labor of love titled "Pictures From Home." Sultan's project--an examination of his parents' lives, his own life and the elusive American dream--is on view at Scottdale Center for the Arts until August 20.

"Pictures From Home" is a self-conscious family photo album, combining enlarged family snapshots from Sultan's 1950s childhood, stills culled from 8mm home movies, memorabilia from his father's career and Sultan's recent photographs of his parents in their retirement home near Palm Springs. Quotations from his parents, as well as their often-exasperated commentary on the photos, provide a deeper understanding of the show.

The family images follow the Sultans from Brooklyn through their migration to Los Angeles in the 1950s--the barbecue, baby Larry jumping through a Hula-Hoop, the picnics, the Disneyland vacation, cigarettes unabashedly dangling from tanned fingers, smiling faces toasting the camera, family pets and a succession of increasingly impressive homes. This is the stock-footage past of upwardly mobile postwar America, the American dream that Larry Sultan attempts to reconcile through his images of his own family, reflecting those of millions of other suburban baby boomers.

The childhood images seem to contain an implicit social analysis, betraying the irony that Sultan, albeit gently, directs toward his parents' generation. Enlarged, uniformly sized and mounted in black metal box frames, they look like a convention-booth photographic collage of postwar America. The show pushes beyond the realm of memory into history, especially his father's history, around which Sultan has said the project originally revolved. The photographer traces the evolution of his father from a cub salesman into a vice president of the Schick Safety Razor company. An office-size alcove dedicated to images of his father documents business successes with letters touting Irving Sultan's sales prowess, company photos and an amazing collage of company-dinner portraits of the good-looking, intensely coifed Irving and Jean Sultan. The display follows Irving's more or less forced retirement after his refusal to move back East following a corporate takeover at Schick.

Sultan bridges the gulf between the images of the American dream and how he really sees his parents through his own work--emotionally loaded photographs that examine his parents' routines since their retirement. Images of Irving preparing for a dip in the pool and practicing his golf swing are uneasy, hinting at a life of quiet desperation.

Irving Sultan is a man who spent his life moving forward and now he's been forced to stop. He doesn't quite fit, something that is vividly expressed in Larry Sultan's image of his father, dressed in suit and tie, seated on the bed. He is staring pensively beyond the camera and seems somehow too big for the room.

My favorite images are of Sultan's mother, Jean, who in retirement has become a real estate hot shot. An amusing addition to the show is an enlargement of a portrait that Jean had asked her son to take of her for the real estate section of the Los Angeles Times. Overlying the portrait is Larry Sultan's text explaining that his mother despises the pictures so much that "she refused to tell anyone" that her son had made them.

"Here I am top saleswoman in the office and I'm the only one in the newspaper that doesn't even look like a sales agent. Who would buy a house from someone who looks so severe?" she demands. "I hate that picture."

A wonderful book accompanies the show and fills out the empty spaces in family history left by the installation. With added text, conversations and family bickering over the project, the reader sees a tenderness in Sultan's bond with his parents that is missing from the show.

And this feeling really was the inspiration for the project, though, as Sultan says, it took him ten years to realize it. The project Sultan originally conceived was aimed at showing "what happens when--as I interpreted my father's fate--corporations discard their no-longer-young employees, and how the resulting frustrations and feelings of powerlessness find their way into family relations."

But as the years progressed, the photographer realized that his goal had all along been "to stop time. I want my parents to live forever."

"In the Last Hour: Sandy Skoglund Photographs and Sculpture, 1979-1992," also at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, features cibachromes of the artist's complex and, in a couple of cases, arresting installations.

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Bettie Rinehart