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  • Writer's pictureJohn A Lewis

Larry Sultan - Pictures from Home

I first made a post on the work of Larry Sultan on the 1 August 2016. Since that time I have developed my own project, but in a style similar to that of Sultan because I felt the he encapsulated the essence of family relationships, their trials and tribulations, the tension and happiness they have experienced.

I did feel that I was not getting the full picture regarding his project ‘Pictures from Home’. The book is out of print, and very expensive to purchase. One such price was in excess of £1000! But without getting a copy of the book and seeing and reading for myself how Sultan went about presenting his work I would not get an accurate feel for the work simply by viewing a number of pre-selected (by someone else) images from the various sites on the internet.

Being a member of the Coventry University Library I asked if they could obtain a copy of the book from the British Library as they did not have a copy themselves. To my delight they were able to do this. So for the first time I was able to experience the book myself.

And I was so right to persist with this because the book provides me with a comprehensive look at how Sultan presented 10 years of his work.

On the front cover of the book is the famous picture of Sultans father looking out of the patio windows of their home.

This image would be the ‘key’ image in the language of Freeman. It halts the viewer and sets the tone for the work. It also fits with the comments by Rowse where he suggests a relationship is introduced, and in this case it is Sultans father – a central figure in the story.

As Freeman points out, a narrative of pictures will very often need some help with text, and there is plenty of text in Sultans book. In fact far more than I expected. The first page of the first chapter contains a short paragraph setting the context and scene telling us how he feels sitting in his parents’ house, alone, after they have gone to bed. This is followed by a series of pictures , mostly wide angle, of Sultans parents, reading in bed, sitting at the kitchen table, working in the garden, going shopping , but they are together, living together , sharing their time together. They are the actors in this story, the key personalities in the narrative.

The pictures themselves do not have any captions – clearly a deliberate decision by Sultan, but there is quite a bit of text which describes how he went about the project, which also contains comments by his father about the project and the resulting pictures, mostly they are not very complementary. But this serves to break up the impact of the pictures for the viewer. We get not just the photographers view of the parents, but also their reaction to the work. The text also tells us about Sultans uncertainties and confusions as to the meaning of the work. He concludes chapter one with the words “I realise that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever”.

Chapter Two is virtually all text. It describes Sultans father and his early memories. The book contains family album archive pictures of his childhood and Sultan describes how he compared himself to his father’s image in the pictures.

Chapter three describes how his parents met and got married. Most of the pictures are from the family archive, taken as stills or from movie pictures. They show a typical set of family snaps, smiling faces, enjoying swimming, fooling about in the water, having a fun time. One of the main pictures in the chapter is one of the family group in a rubber dingy set beside a family portrait of the two brothers on the desk of the current home.

In this way Sultan is creating a timeline of ‘events’, recreating for the viewer what he perceives as a happy family time. This may or may not be true, but the reality is presented to us in this way. Family albums almost always offer a selection of pictures which show the good times, not the bad or sad days.

Chapter four concentrates heavily on Sultans father, his struggles in developing a career, and his eventual success within the Schick Corporate structure, rising to a Vice President position. More archive pictures accompany the text which shows the family, their pets and the homes they were eventually able to buy. It was a time of hard work and dedication to ‘making it’ and living the’ American dream’. Some of the tensions between Sultans parents began to come out in the ‘story’. The conflict that many people have experienced where the father has to work away from home, leaving the mother to handle all the domestic activities on her own. We see pictures of Sultans home 1951 and a new home in 1962.

Chapter five continues the progression of Sultans father in his route to the top of the Schick Corporation. Sultan, on creating this project found himself comparing himself with his father. “Did he feel the same intensity of doubt and confusion as I do?” was one of the questions Sultan posed. A strong image of Sultans father appears at the start of this chapter. He is standing by a white board, in a business suit, which a black felt tip pen in his hand. The writing on the board we suppose has been written by Sultans father and provides advice on how to be successful

We are told that at 56 Sultans father’s career with Schick is over. The firm has merged and he will not relocate. With a weeks’ notice he has left the company he had worked for 20 years and contributed so much. Sultan creates a picture of his father sitting on the edge of his bed in a suit. Sultan’s father commented on the picture later that he did not feel the way he was portrayed. We see how Sultan felt his father should feel.

Chapter six brings the story to a conclusion but again with quite a bit of text which describes Sultans parents and their relationship, particularly his mother who has forged a successful estate agency business in her own right. The pictures ends the book where it started, with pictures of his parents together, highlighting the tensions between them as they adjust their lives to a new role of retirement. The images show them in their home, talking, discussing problems, arguing, facing different ways but eventually moving and coming together. The final pages are a flashback of a further set of family album pictures.

After this analysis of Sultans book I re-examined my project (One in Eight Men) to see how it could be improved. Having the book also provides insights into the picture layout and style of presentation and how the text is intertwined with the pictures adding context to the images. Of course the book (1992 addition Harry N. Abrams, Inc) had to be returned to the library, but since then a new version has been published by MACK 1917 now a valued addition to my library.

Darren Rowse “Telling Stories with Photos”, on the digital photography school website.

Michael Freeman, (Three Tips to help your photos tell a story) September 2011 (updated January 2012)

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