Larry Sultan dies at 63; photographer had San Fernando Valley focus

Larry Sultan, a prominent fine art photographer who repeatedly reached back to the San Fernando Valley of his youth to lyrically explore the dark side of the suburbs and the American dream, has died. He was 63.

Sultan died Sunday of cancer at his home in Greenbrae, Calif., said Rebecca Boucher, his sister-in-law.

“He has been such an influential figure, not only regionally but internationally,” said Britt Salvesen, curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“He was a really intelligent exporter of ideas about California and about photography . . . a significant thinker as well as an image maker,” she said.

His work “consistently engaged the culture of Southern California,” Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said in 2004 when the museum presented “The Valley,” which documented how area homes were used as settings for adult films.

He considered himself a “photographic scavenger” and his first major project, in 1977, reflected that. With Mike Mandel, a photographer he’d met in art school, Sultan spent two years combing through images to assemble “Evidence,” an exhibit of photos originally made as records for industry, police or government.

Stripped of identifying information, the photos were taken out of context and became “mysterious, humorous, ominous and, often, beautiful,” art critic William Wilson wrote in The Times when they were displayed in 1977 at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art.

Among the exhibit’s photographs was one of a Thunderbird exploding and another of a man in thermal underwear bristling with tubes and electrodes. Together, they made a point: Photos taken for practical purposes could closely resemble works of art.

For another major project, “Pictures From Home,” Sultan spent 10 years putting together a portfolio that mixed images from his family’s snapshot and movie archives with formal photographs of his parents, shown in retirement in Los Angeles and Palm Desert.

The work was “about family history and the American dream, and how those two intersect,” Sultan told The Times in 1989. “My father bought a one-way ticket from New York in 1949 and ended up in a dream house in Sherman Oaks. It was part of the cultural myth of the ‘50s about going west.”

“Pictures From Home” grew out of Sultan’s notion that a family’s story can have as many versions as there are family members. He also was intrigued by his father’s forced early retirement as a vice president of Schick Safety Razor.

Sultan had his parents act out ordinary moments, such as cooking dinner or practicing a golf swing. The results could seem stilted but also yielded unexpected spontaneity, critics said. In 1989 they were shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“That’s not me,” his father would insist when he saw his vacant expression in a photograph. Yet he continued to cooperate, he said, because he wanted his son to succeed.

In “The Valley,” Sultan said he continued his examination of “the suburbs, home and family.” Despite his subject -- the U.S. adult film industry that is centered in the Valley -- the photographs were relatively inexplicit.

While on assignment for a magazine feature on a day in the life of a porn star, Sultan arrived at a house that was owned by a dentist and only blocks from Taft High School, Sultan’s alma mater.

Struck by the juxtaposition of family portraits and “this weird mass” of naked bodies, he knew that it had to be his next project, Sultan told the Sunday Times of South Africa in 2004. “It was the intersection of the familiarity and banality of those homes with fantasy.”

His real subject was “the in-between moments, the quick nap or stolen bit of solitude between takes, the endless waiting that all filmmaking entails,” Colin Westerbeck wrote in 2006 in the L.A. Times.

The 53 oversized photographs that made up “The Valley” were exhibited in 2004 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

“I’m interested not in pornography, but rather in dismantling it, in exploring domesticity, the construction of desire,” Sultan once told a curator at the museum.

Born in New York City on July 13, 1946, Sultan moved to the Valley as a young child with his parents, Irving and Jean.

After receiving a bachelor’s in political science in 1968 from UC Santa Barbara, Sultan earned a master’s in fine art from the San Francisco Art Institute and stayed in the Bay Area.

He started out teaching high school art and eventually became a professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

“He was as passionate about his teaching as he was his art,” his sister-in-law said. “He loved the intersection of philosophy, photography and cultural observation. And he had just a wonderful, wonderful wit about him.”

Sultan is survived by his wife of 22 years, Kelly; two sons, Max and Will; and two brothers, Michael of Pacific Palisades and Kenneth of Santa Barbara.