Larry Sultan: Pictures From Home

10.08.17

Getting older is kind of OK. ‘Pictures From Home’ is a document of Larry Sultan’s parents in their twilight years, but it’s also a document of Larry reaching that point in life where you want to truly understand your parents. It’s easy to not see your parental units as real flesh and blood people, whether as a temper tantrum toddler, sullen teen, or independence-obsessed adult. By the time you’ve lived enough life that you can relate to and care about their stories of first jobs, adult struggles, or the verbal unraveling of family trees, hopefully everybody’s egos can get out the way so you can finally listen.

Egos are still here, as evidenced in Larry’s father Irving telling him that, “you have some stake in making us look older and more despairing than we really feel” – and the fact that his dad might be right. First published in 1992, Larry’s book juxtaposes old family photos and home movies (which have been newly digitised and magnified for this updated edition) alongside Larry’s pics which are both candid and carefully posed, blurring the line between documentary and biopic. Larry definitely has final cut herein, as the editor and author of his parents’ life story.

Alongside the images are edits of extensive interviews with Irving and Larry’s mum, Jean, as well as Larry’s commentary and narrative. Like Fellini in 8 1/2 or Ross McElwee in Sherman’s March, Sultan stumbles through an objective/subjective landscape, ultimately reduced to a minor aside as his parents take lead. The text is where the story completely springs to life, and the biggest criticism I have of the book is that the writing (and in turn, Sultan’s work as curator, since he chose what to include) is the real star, with his parents’ firsthand narratives making for such compelling reading that the photos are at risk of being reduced to reference material.

And Irving’s right, the book does seem to focus on the bittersweet and sad, contrasting cheery images of old photos with the often sad, always very difficult, real life stories behind them. Step back and realise this real life drama all plays out in the San Fernando Valley – home to Paul Thomas Anderson, the porn industry, and The Brady Bunch – and the bite is a bit surreal. While Sultan’s arrangements seem to imply disillusionment with the American Dream – or at least a bittersweet denouement – reprinting this classic book now adds another layer of sadness. The fact his folks retired with disposable income and a home in a resort town is positively winning by the standards of Trump’s America

During a photo book moment where narrative and sentimentality often seem verboten or painfully out of fashion, ‘Pictures From Home’ is striking and super refreshing. When you get to that point in life where you start asking your parents to tell you all their old stories again, you realise that getting older is kind of OK. Let’s hope we all have time to reach the sort of contented maturity Larry, Irving, and Jean show here, filled with humanity, appreciation, and a love that’s as tense and regretful as it is real.

— Wilfred Brandt

Wilfred Brandt is a writer, editor and teacher based in Sydney, Aus.