Everyday Women Through Larry Sultan’s Lens At SFMOMA

Photo by Sabrina Canepa

In the newest SFMOMA exhibit, photography from a few of Larry Sultan’s collections are on display. From his collaborative effort with Mike Mandel, Evidence (1977), a series of pictures from governmental archives, to The Valley (2000), which follows pornography photo shoots in suburban neighborhoods, Sultan has a unique talent for shedding new light on everyday life. This is especially highlighted in his photo series Pictures From Home (1992). The pictures depict his mother and father, Jean and Irving Sultan, doing mundane activities offset with vivid colors.

Photo by Sabrina Canepa

There is a notable focus on the artist’s mother. Every picture in which Jean is the sole subject presents her boldly facing the camera. In pictures that feature Sultan’s father as the subject, his mother is found in the background or shadows. Set in their modest suburban home, Sultan’s parents are presented as equal partners. In one photograph, the couple is framed facing each other, their similar statures and clothing evident. In another, both rest in bed, newspaper and magazines positioned over their faces as they read. The gender contrast is apparent, yet there’s a power given to Jean Sultan. She’s a quiet, looming figure in some pictures, and clearly centered in others. But no matter her positioning, the viewer’s eye is always drawn to Jean Sultan’s role in the photograph. A quotation pasted on the wall reveals Larry Sultan’s approach in depicting his mother. After a disagreement with his father, Sultan explains “I argued that our conflicting notions about who mom is and how she should be represented are based on our different relationships to her. She is my mother but his wife.” Either way, the importance of Jean Sultan in both the men’s lives is brought to the attention of all onlookers.

Photo by Sabrina Canepa

Women from the pornagraphy exhibit hold a similar importance. Each picture is captured on set in a suburb of LA, the same town where Sultan grew up. The women featured in these pictures are depicted in a different way from the porn they are featured in. It shows them hanging out around set or simply staring at the camera with a sense of reservation. Despite the overtly sexual circumstances and performance involved, Sultan captures the women’s vulnerability. While Pictures From Home gives vibrancy to average occurrences, The Valley normalizes a taboo industry.

Photo by Sabrina Canepa

Viewers are presented with women and their roles as personal and professional acquaintances to Sultan. Although there is a vast contrast, Sultan celebrates women in all forms and circumstances.

Photo by Sabrina Canepa

 

By: Sabrina Canepa