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Tuesday, 2 May 2017
The eyelid drooping, life-denying, thought ending power of "Don't Smile!"
It's easy to blame the viewer for not getting something.
We can blame the viewer for not getting a book by saying they didn't read it correctly or, in a photobook, look at the pictures properly. We can tell people what they did wrong at an exhibition and highlight their critical inferiority. We can even tell people that they are being stupid when they don't do what you want them to do on a website, when they click in the wrong places, or don't stay there long enough to get the message we want them to get.
We can do that and pretend it's the fault of the viewer they don't get it. We can stay in denial about our failure to communicate effectively because it will never be proven otherwise. It's not our fault for being unengaging or boring or failing to understand the audience. It's always somebody else's fault for being too stupid and dull and unaware.
The alternative is to make sure that people do read your book, or see your exhibition, or visit your website in the way you want them to by engaging them, by being interesting, by understanding that the point of a work is to be engaged with the world, and the audience and realise that it takes work to make that happen.
That's what Larry Sultan does in Pictures from Home, just republished in new and perfected form by Mack. It is (as was the first edition) quite brilliant.
First of all, it's a book about something. It's about Irving Sultan, Larry's father. It's about lots of other things too, but Larry Sultan wanted it to be interesting, wanted it to hook the viewer in, so he made a choice. And that choice was for Irving is the focus of the narrative.
Second it's got words and pictures. The pictures matter and so do the words. They really matter, they're the hook, they're what suck you in and take you into a world that goes far beyond Irving, Larry, and Larry's mother, Jean. This is not a text that is stuck at the back of the book because nobody's going to read it. It's right there in your face and it's brilliant.
Third of all, it's also about itself. It's about power, performance, the family album, consent, negotiation, and the archaeology of the photographic image, That's central to what makes the book great, but it comes after the fact. Because first and foremost it's about Larry Sultan's family. That's important.
When I opened the book I read it cover to cover (again), in one sitting. It tells the story of Irving Sultan, of his childhood in a Jewish orphanage, of meeting Jean, of their marriage and of their eventual move west from Brooklyn to California.
It's Irving's personal story, a story of making friends and influencing people, of how he fought the odds, and made a success of himself, of how he climbed the promotion ladder at the Schick Razor Company and lived the American dream. Until he got fired and the dream faded.
So it's a history of being a salesman for corporate America.It's also a social history of America, it's the art of persuasion of the 1950s, it's the hedonism of the 1960s, it's the transformation of California into a suburban overflow, it's a history of home, consumption and property and becoming rich.
Pictures from Home is also about Jean. It's about the challenges of being married to Irving, growing old, and how the job never ends, how Irving grows a dicondra lawn because 'it's the most difficult and demanding lawn to grow'. Once a salesman always a salesman, the world becomes his target. So it's a book about that; the isolation of living in the non-corporate world.
The pictures are a mixture of formats and genres; family album images are mixed with home movie film stills which are mixed with corporate images from Irving's time at the Schick Razor Company, all topped off with Sultan's glorious staged portraits of his parents in and around their homes.
And it's about how we make pictures and the expectations we have of them and the uses we make of them. One of my favourite quotes is this one from Irving to his son.
'I don't know what you're doing. You seem to be just as confused as I am I mean, you pussyfoot around; half of the time the tape recorder doesn't work and you want me to repeat conversations that occurred spontaneously, and on the other hand you take the smae picture over and over again and you're still not happy with the results. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I don't know what you're after. What's the big deal?'
'All I know is that when you photograph me I feel everything leave me. The blood drains from my face, my eyelids droop, my thoughts disappear. I can feel my facial muscles go limp. All you have to do is give me that one cue, "Don't Smile," and zap. Nothing. That's what you get.'
And Larry's response: 'No. What I get is an image of you that you don't like. Doesn't it come down to vanity and power? A question of how you look and who determines that, who's in control of the image.'
So it's about power and photography, and control of the image. Larry Sultan manages both to question both the genres of more functional photography found in Pictures from Home - the corporate, the family album, the home movie still - and the devices that he uses (both photographic and textual) to tell the lives of Larry and Jean. But despite all this question of images and the power structures they are part of, the stratas of visual narrative if you like, there is still a heart to the book. It is not just about questioning. Because ultimately the control of images is secondary to how we tell a story. Because Pictures from Home is about story telling - using different voices, different photographic genres that link to different stratas of history that have emotional substance to them. And that emotional substance is the truth factor in the book.
Sultan isn't just letting his pictures, magnificent though they are, just sit there on the page. He is weaving familial relationships, grievances, neuroses and mythologies into the mix. It is not an easy path to take, but he takes it perfectly.
As for the new Mack edition, it is wonderful. The font and the layout are much cleaner, the pictures given more room to breathe, there is a sense of freshness to it that is compounded by the type being slightly more spread out, and genuinely easier to read (while staying true to the original - see the comparison spreads above). The big difference is the paper. The new Pictures from Home feels wonderful. It's a treat to touch, a treat to read, a treat to see. It's simply wonderful.
Buy Pictures from Home here.