The Well-Upholstered Nightmare
The Well-Upholstered NightmareIs pops a contented conqueror or a trapped animal? Larry Sultan. Image from Pictures From Home(Second Printing) (MACK, 2021). Courtesy ofThe Estate of Larry Sultan and MACK.
Pictures from Home(Second Printing) by Larry Sultan. Mack Books, 192 pages.
We first see it emblazoned upon the book’s cover, and then once more on its opening page: a resplendent photograph of a mid-sized Spanish Colonial at dusk. Light appears to travel throughthe image somehow—a quality derived from a long exposure time—receding as the Southern California sky gives way to periwinkle twilight. An aluminum ladder stands like a capital A on the Astroturf-perfect lawn, next to a half-pruned pink bougainvillea that bursts against the stucco wall of the house and crawls around the edge of a glass sliding door. Behind the glass—backlit by a smoldering, golden incandescence—there stands a man. Dressed in a white Oxford and dark slacks, hands on his hips, he looks out at us as we stare at his little jewel box of a home. Is he a contented conqueror or a trapped animal?
Over the course of the 1980s, the photographer Larry Sultan sought to answer this question, documenting his parents’ lives inside two different homes, the first in the San Fernando Valley, the second in Palm Desert, a few miles southeast of Palm Springs. The resulting project, Pictures from Home—first published in 1992 and recently reissued in an extended form by Mack Books after falling more or less out of print—is a scrapbook of color-saturated photographs and passages of Sultan’s writing, as well as conversations with his parents, stills from family home movies, and other bits of ephemera. This capacious form pits Sultan’s impression of his parents against their impression of themselves; it also enables him to move between archival and novelistic modes, an approach fitting of a book that feels like a historical document of a long-gone fantasy. The reprinting of Pictures from Homecomes at a curious time, after all, as eviction moratoriums expire across the country and homeownership falls further out of reach for much of the American population. Though Sultan’s depiction of suburban comfort is at least generally mordant, it also possesses a nostalgia that feels more naïve today than it did in the early 1990s.
Sultan knew exactly what he was doing in turning his parents into props.
California—especially the pool-and-lawn California that Sultan’s parents called home—is a place of myth; one settles there to start anew but also to blend in, to fall into a vision invented by someone else. For Irving and Jean Sultan, two Jews who met in cramped, smoggy Brooklyn in the 1930s and bonded over their dreams of escape, this myth of air-conditioned assimilation took on a religious force. A self-described “‘dese and dem’ kid” who spent time in an orphanage after his father’s early death, Irving Sultan was a product of the Brooklyn shtetl, and from a young age he dreamed of leaving for Los Angeles. After World War II ended, inspired by a course based on Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, he hopped a westbound train and, following a few years of selling suits and beer, landed a job as a salesman at Schick.
Irving Sultan’s meteoric rise—from struggling salesman at a clothing store at Radio City to vice president of sales at the Eversharp Schick Safety Razor Company—provides the focal point of Pictures from Home. “To me he was James Dean,” his son recalls. At three-and-a-half, Larry traveled with his mother and brother by train from Brooklyn to join Irving in Los Angeles. “I wore a cowboy outfit,” Larry remembers. “There were wild Indians. . . . Where was my father? He was out there with his men, chasing down the Indians, dust flying from his horse.” Irving’s success was enough to net the family a house on a cul-de-sac in Sherman Oaks (so impeccably idyllic as to be featured in a Purina dog food commercial), and then, soon enough, a bigger one further west in Woodland Hills, one outfitted with “Japanese-style landscaping, a lava pit, and a waterfall that flowed into a large swimming pool.” But Irving’s time at the top was relatively brief. In 1970, Schick was absorbed by Warner-Lambert, and Irving, like most of his colleagues, accepted their offer to stay with the company. Unlike his colleagues, however, he refused to move back East, “simply staying in a hotel and commuting back” to Los Angeles. “I hated the idea of getting stuck back in Chicago or New York,” he recalls, and so he sacrificed everything to California, terminating his career in his mid-fifties and condemning himself to the leisure of early retirement.
Since its initial release, the conversation around Pictures from Home has revolved around Sultan’s apparent desire to, as he put it, “puncture [the] mythology of the family” in the Age of Reagan. And while Sultan’s photographs certainly contain garish depictions of conspicuous consumption (we are treated to numerous glimpses of his parents’ floor-to-ceiling rococo wallpaper, their lime green carpeting, and their inflatable pool toys), the flatness of this aspirational domesticity seems to have induced a certain critical flatness as well. Reading through Sultan’s formidable prose, one notices his hesitancy to commit to any set thesis. “I wake up in the middle of the night,” he writes, “stunned and anguished. These are my parents. From that simple fact, everything follows. I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.”
In order to achieve this desired effect, Sultan began pursuing “a blend of staged and documentary work,” using the fiction of reenactment to evoke a heightened version of lived reality. At one point, Sultan describes “bargain[ing] with my father, trading him hours of weeding in his garden for minutes of his time posing for me. When I finally begin to photograph him, I feel so anxious that I retake the same pictures I made years ago.” Despite this anxiety, Sultan was an absolute master of his form, one who was even able to use self-doubt as a device unto itself. “You shoot thirty rolls of film to get one or two pictures that you like. Doesn’t that worry you?” Irving asks, but Sultan’s process of selection seems directly related to his use of occasional staging—both techniques helped him momentarily assuage his fears of betrayal (“It’s all an exaggeration, Mom and Dad!”) while simultaneously forcing him to admit to and emphasize the farcical opulence of suburban family life.
You can even see Sultan’s novelistic eye in the photographs that appear to be more candid, such as the one that shows Irving in the living room, swinging a golf club. With the sun peeking through the diaphanous curtains and daytime news blaring on the TV behind him, he remains frozen with his hands behind his glowering face, the shaft of the club sprouting from his skull like an antenna; dressed only in a blue T-shirt and boxers, he appears fragile, paper thin, his spindly legs coiled, his knobby, calloused feet bare upon the green shag rug. Success is a well-upholstered nightmare, Sultan’s camera suggests, or else no different from purgatory.
Moving further and further along, the viewer begins to feel claustrophobic, as if marooned inside the house along with Sultan’s parents. (“I can go days without talking to a soul,” Irving admits. “The phone rings, but it’s always for your mother.”) And so it isn’t hard to understand why Irving resented some of these images, especially the posed ones. “No wonder I look lost in your pictures,” he writes in one back-and-forth. “You leave me in the middle of nowhere.” Perhaps he was thinking of a certain photograph—“the one of me sitting on the bed,” as he calls it—in which he remains planted upon the sheets, outfitted in a navy blue suit as if ready for work, his gaze vacant, his shoulders hunched, and his hands clasped awkwardly in front of his crotch. “Maybe I’m a little bored but I’m not melancholy,” he retorts, “longing for the old days of Schick or waiting for death.”
This interpretive jockeying between father and son forms an undercurrent that runs through Pictures from Home(Jean, for her part, often gets left on the sidelines). “All I know is that you have some stake in making us look older and more despairing than we really feel,” Irving gripes. “I don’t know what you’re trying to get at.” But despite his internal ambivalence, and his palpable sense of remorse, Sultan knew exactly what he was doing in turning his parents into props: “I was willing to use my family to prove a point,” he notes at the beginning of the book.
Framed this way, the American home becomes a laboratory of self-estrangement.
It is important, though, to consider the moments when Sultan undercuts the steely-eyed gaze of his own camera and channels the nostalgia of his parents’ home videos, which allegedly catalyzed his project in the first place. “It was as if my parents had projected their dreams onto film emulsion,” Sultan writes in the opening chapter of Pictures. “Sitting in the living room, we watched thirty years of folktales. . . . I was in my mid-thirties and longing for the intimacy, security, and comfort that I associated with home.” On a structural level, Sultan uses stills from these movies as a visual interlude, placing a lengthy sequence of them in the very middle of the book, as if to provide a “good dream” (as he once called it) to counter the guilt-inducing candor of his own photographs. And what a dream it is! In no particular order, we see: a sun-tanned and chiseled Irving standing beneath a waterfall with his arms held above his head like a triumphant prizefighter; Jean in the passenger’s seat of a red convertible, a serrated emerald mountain-range undulating behind her; Jean and Larry walking in front of the wooden skeleton of what will soon be the Sherman Oaks house; Irving and Jean kissing on the deck of a cruise ship, their necks encircled by pink garlands; young Larry, dressed in a white shirt and matching shorts, jumping through a red hula hoop held out to him by an adult’s arm.
This last image (which actually comes at the beginning of the book, right before the title page) acts as a somewhat heavy-handed visual metaphor, gesturing toward a subject that has gone almost completely overlooked during discussions of Pictures from Home: that of Jewish assimilation in postwar America. Maybe this makes sense, since Sultan doesn’t write about it much himself, and given that Pictures presents the result of his parents’ “goy-ification” instead of its development—the hoops, in other words, had already been jumped through. Though both Irving and Jean share flashes of their past lives in the printed interviews, they remain a bit cagey; eager to fill this vacuum, Larry writes fictional miniatures about each of them (“My mother tells me almost nothing about her childhood . . . She wrapped cigars for her father . . . I don’t even know his name, but sometimes I can see her”; “My father runs through time . . . through some magical version of New York, suburban Los Angeles grafted onto Harlem”) but they feel ahistorical and idealized, only fortifying the white-bread aspirations of his parents’ home videos. Framed this way, the American home becomes a laboratory of self-estrangement, a place where Mommy and Daddy train their children to forget about their ancestors.
According to Jean, her own mother refused to believe that Irving was Jewish (“He seems like a nice Gentile boy,” she purportedly remarked upon their meeting), but later, when Irving tells Larry about his days of selling suits near Radio City, he lets it slip that he had to change his name to evade anti-Semitism. “You have no idea about prejudice until you pass yourself off as someone else, as one of them,” he remarks. “Irving Sultan was a Jew, but John Sutton wasn’t.” So while Larry Sultan may have seen his father’s abrupt retirement as the family wound hiding behind the floral curtains and the glass sliding doors, it feels revelatory and heartrending to consider exactly why Irving didn’t want to abandon his lawnmower and his pool toys and head back to New York City. In the Valley, or in Palm Desert, Irving Sultan could also be John Sutton, but he could do so by choice, and he could go by whatever name he so preferred. In New York, there were the crowds, there was the soot, and there was the sooty, crowded shtetl. Irving Sultan, former V.P. of the Eversharp Schick Safety Razor Company, wasn’t going back to all that. Besides, who else would trim the bougainvillea?
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