The cast and crew have gathered in the front yard of a ranch-style house, a few blocks from where I went to high school in the San Fernando Valley. Women in six-inch heels sink into the lawn; men push around camera equipment, anxious about losing the light. They are preparing to film a scene in which four blond housewives in a convertible are pursued and overtaken by two men in an appliance-repair van. In the golden afternoon light the neighbors have come out to water their lawns and witness the scene.
It is common for adult-film companies to shoot in tract houses — the homes of dentists and attorneys and day traders whose family photographs can be seen in the background, and whose decorating tastes give the films their particular look. It’s as if one family went on vacation for a few days, leaving everything in the house intact, and another family, an odd assembly of unrelated adults, has temporarily taken up residence. While the film crew and talent are hard at work in the living room, I wander through the house peering into the lives of the people who live there. I feel like a forensic photographer searching out evidence.
In these films, lazy afternoons are interrupted not by noisy children but by the uncontrollable desires of delivery boys, baby sitters, coeds and cops. They crowd in the master bedrooms and spill out onto the patios and into the pools that look just like our neighbors’ pools, like our pool. And by photographing this I’m planted squarely in the terrain of my own ambivalence — that rich and fertile field that stretches out between fascination and repulsion, desire and loss. I’m home again.
Larry Sultan grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley, which became a source of inspiration for a number of his projects. His work blends documentary and staged photography to create images of the psychological as well as physical landscape of suburban family life. Sultan’s pioneering book and exhibition Pictures From Home (1992) was a decade long project that features his own mother and father as its primary subjects, exploring photography’s role in creating familial mythologies. Using this same suburban setting, his book, The Valley (2004) examined the adult film industry and the area’s middle-class tract homes that serve as pornographic film sets. Katherine Avenue, (2010) the exhibition and book, explored Sultan’s three main series, Pictures From Home, The Valley, and Homeland along side each other to further examine how Sultan’s images negotiate between reality and fantasy, domesticity and desire, as the mundane qualities of the domestic surroundings become loaded cultural symbols. In 2012, the monograph, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel was published to examine in depth the thirty plus year collaboration between these artists as they tackled numerous conceptual projects together that includes Billboards, How to Read Music In One Evening, Newsroom, and the seminal photography book Evidence, a collection of found institutional photographs, first published in 1977.
Larry Sultan’s work has been exhibited and published widely and is included in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he was also recognized with the Bay Area Treasure Award in 2005. Sultan served as a Distinguished Professor of Photography at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1946, Larry Sultan passed away at his home in Greenbrae, California in 2009.