Larry Sultan’s photos capture, tenderly, the paradise of Southern California – and the tensions and desires that complicate it

Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

IC_MEIS_SULTAN_AP_000When I look at photographs by Larry Sultan I smell eucalyptus and lavender. Those are the plants I can name. I also smell the gnarled bushes and brown weeds, the nameless desert flowers that grew in the nooks and crannies of Laurel Canyon, in the places that hadn’t been watered and replanted by homeowners. Running around in the behind-spaces of the Hollywood Hills as a youth, I smelled all those smells, got them on my fingers. It is strange that a photograph, something that cannot be smelled or touched or tasted, could recall those sensations. But those dirt-dusted plant smells are in every frame of Sultan’s photographic series Pictures from Home (1982-92), The Valley (1998-2003), and Homeland (2006-9).

Larry Sultan died of cancer in 2009; the Homeland series constitutes his final testimony. The smelliest of the Homeland pictures is, for me, Creek, Santa Rosa (2007). Santa Rosa is actually up in Northern California, but Sultan shot it to look more or less the same as L.A.’s Valley. The picture shows a half-dried creek behind a housing development. A youngish Latino man crouches down with a bucket. Presumably, he is gathering water. Another man is heading up the hill behind, his bucket already full. In terms of content, the picture is not unlike something you might see in a 17th century painting. European villagers drawing water from a nearby river. Something painted, maybe, by Claude Lorrain.

But in a picture by Claude Lorrain, the villagers drawing the water are fully integrated into the landscape. With Claude, people belong to place and place belongs to people. The paintings work because everything holds together in a neo-classical pictorial oneness. It doesn’t work that way in a picture by Larry Sultan. The two men in Creek, Santa Rosa are drawing water from the creek because they don’t have access to the taps in the modern homes just behind them.

More here.