A Psychological investigation of the work of Larry Sultan ‘Pictures from Home’ (1982-92)
Larry Sultan, in an interview with Sheryl Conkelton (Flintridge Foundation Awards for Visual Arts 1999/2000) said,
‘When I was working on ‘Pictures from Home’, my parents’ voices – their stories as well as their arguments with my version of our shared history – were crucial to the book. They called into question the documentary truth the pictures seemed to carry. I wanted to subvert the sentimental home movies and snapshots with my more contentious images of suburban daily life, but at the same time I wished to subvert my images with my parents’ insights into my point of view’.
The family album is a visual record, but also a volume of inter-relational family experiences, generally constructed and presented as historical truth; a picture of, certainly to their owners, of both visual and emotional reality. This document bears witness to our connectedness with family, humanity and ourselves; for most of us it is often the only proof of our existence. It tells the viewer what there is and how it was, our own inventory of life. It creates a link with both the past and the future and eventually, it provides the one and only link between ‘us’ and ‘there’ or ‘them’ and ‘then’. Cameras go with family life; they escort us around so that we can prove that we where really here at all. A family’s photographic album is generally about us now, but becomes a historic document of the extended family and often, is all that remains of it. It seems you cannot claim to have seen anything, been anywhere or ‘belonged’ unless you have photographed it. It proves we had relationships.
The family album has its truths of course, but the justification that it show how it really was, is not so clear. It is a worthy document, however it also has a role as a defence against our anxieties. Family albums actively promote nostalgia; one could argue that photography, far from documenting the truth, succeeds more in hiding it, than it does the revealing of it. Larry Sultan states,
‘Photography is there to construct the idea of us as a great family and we go on vacations and take these pictures and then we look at them later and we say, ‘Isn’t this a great family?’ So photography is instrumental in creating family not only as a memento, a souvenir, but also a kind of mythology.’
I would like to discuss that photographer Larry Sultan and his series of images that he published in 1992, ‘Pictures from Home’ are his family photographs of his truth, outside the mythology of family. I attempt to disclose more about his relationship with his parents, to read into the images something of his inner world that initially the images don’t show to us. Sultan acknowledges that he is producing a document of family images from his point of view and that he shows, through them, how he gains awareness of the ‘mythology’ of the family document. We see also his need to ‘subvert [his] images with [his] parents’ insights into [his] point of view’.
Sultan was very aware of his involvement, of the fact that he was colluding and appearing symbolically, and not literally, in the pictures in which he produces. In his words, the images became a portrait of ‘us’. He goes on to say,
‘The daily practice of a photographer is to be distanced, to have a little bit of room between what you’re doing and how you see, what you look at. For me the biggest surprise was that the distance I thought I needed as a photographer slipped. It wasn’t about ‘these’ people it was about ‘us’.’
The words of Larry Sultan describing his production of this series of images photographed for a decade up to 1992 for me show so strongly, and certainly when viewed through the lens of psychoanalytical theory, an exhibition of a son attempting to force himself into the family portrait. This is his Oedipal struggle visualised through photography. Not the first attempt, one could imagine, but with photography, he shows us his need to gain insight into his Oedipal dilemma. Larry Sultan again,
‘What drives me to continue this work is difficult to name. It has more to do with love than with sociology. With being a subject in the drama rather than a witness, and in the odd and jumbled process of working, everything shifts: the boundaries blur, my distance slips, the arrogance and illusion of immunity falters. I wake up on the middle of the night, stunned and anguished. These are my parents. From that simple fact, everything follows.’
Although he doesn’t appear in these images, his presence is felt. What we see is the son who was left out, who still remains outside, beyond the dyad of the overbearing father who disallows access to his protected mother. In Merriah Lambs essay on this series of pictures, entitled ‘Reconstructing family: Larry Sultan’s pictures from home’, provides an insight into the use of the camera to enquire into family dynamics and as the title suggests, a rebuilding of the family unit.
‘Sultan understands the camera’s function as the family’s primary instrument of self-knowledge and self-representation by which family memory perpetuates, using it to re-examine family, but also undermining any claim that photographs and their arrangements are necessarily an accurate form of documentation of family life’.
She goes on to say,
‘Pictures from home is the sons account, a representation of the trawling through of these memories and what we see is quite disturbing. Through the production of the family album, we want to idolised the image of our world and our place within it and more importantly our relationships throughout our existence’.
The first thing to note is that the traditional role of the family albums production is reversed here. The son photographs the parents. The story will be different, the social norm is for the parents to display their interpretation of history, their sense of power, edited and presented, to be used as an aid memoir but also it is the story of the compilers of this story, to corroborate one persons recollection. Sultan has an opportunity here, to engage with this album dynamic once again, but this time on his terms. On the surface, he gives his sitters a voice, literally and aesthetically, but the most present person is the photographer; in these portraits, he makes up his own experience of the events.
I would like to bring an Oedipal interpretation to these images, in association with a phantasy of my view of what Sultan is saying. There is a physical space he occupies in these pictures, between his parents; it is of an elevated status, his size and strength is noticed, there is an achievement of some kind. Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of the Oedipal Struggle in his ‘Interpretation of Dreams’, (1899). It is his theory of relationships, gender assignment and sexuality. Although Freud believed this was a stage of psychosexual development to be negotiated during the Phallic stage (3-6), the psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, would place this stage at much earlier, as early as the oral stage (aged 1). What is seen, in the pictures, is a renegotiated Oedipal struggle, re-visited perhaps because of its failed resolution in early age or simply an illustration of his recollection of that experience; a photographic symbol of the echo from an earlier experiences of a difficult phase of development. Can this Oedipal concept be seen within the work of Larry Sultan? Are these images a visual metaphor describing a son’s competition for his mother? Does he view his father as a rival for her attentions and affections?
If this stage is not negotiated, or only part negotiated then, a continual struggle ensues. Repressed feelings from failed attempts form conflicts and throughout life an attempt is made to seek out its resolution. In the case of these series of images, Sultan attempts again to negotiate its resolution. The Oedipal dilemma can be seen simply as a realisation of the dynamics within a triadic relationship moving from a dyadic one, or can be a more dramatic visualisation of a painful process of reconciliation of a conflict, essentially, in wrestling power from dad and gaining access to mum. In other words, from the state of ‘me’ to realisation of the ‘other’, or a more dramatic outburst of repressed resentments held back from earlier failures of it’s negotiation.
As initially conceived by Sultan, the project was to be about ‘what happens when – as I interpreted my father’s fate – corporations discard their no-longer-young employees, and how the resulting frustrations and feelings of powerlessness find their way into family relations.’
These pictures, have been taken at a time when his father was forced into retirement; his patriarchal power is on the wane, an ideal opportunity for such an unconscious attack, for the son to gain access to his mother previously denied. To gain access to a mother denied for so long. The situation of the weakened father coincides with mother’s newfound power (her business was in the ascendancy).
The images are of the everyday, located in their home, however there is a sense of a wedge being forced between the main protagonists, is it simply the wedge of the obtrusive lens? No, it is the presence of Sultan Jr. we see, and this is what interests me in this series. It is more than a document of his parents, his background; the photographs show an interaction between them which indicate more that what we see on the surface. The boy is present in these images and it is a boy who wants access.
While describing the series for the Independent Michael Collins 2010 says,
‘The most magical and redeeming quality of photography, especially given the vulgar and superficial way it is so often employed, is that a photograph will reveal, subtly or otherwise, how the photographer was engaging with the subject. Our reading of family pictures is the most sophisticated of all, because our familial relationships are the most complicated, critical and contrary of all.’
The infant attempts an understanding of his relationship with that of his parents and his position in that dyad, at many stages of his life. Upon the realisation of the existence of the other, which may be manifested in his father’s rage and jealousy, he negotiates this place. These images are Sultans need to get between the two main protagonists, a photographic illustration of the attempt to engage with them both after the original ousting from the primal scene. Now is another chance, through photography, of making sense of his position of power in this triad. We are looking at Sultans Oedipal conflict revisited, for it will be his only opportunity, as Sultan Jr. was to die of cancer in 2009 in his 63rd year. As we stare into this world of his parents Sultan reveals the psychological concept, that of the Oedipal dilemma. One that Collins alludes to, but does not name as such;
‘And yet, this was his parents’ home, the site where all those fraught hopes, understandings and misunderstandings, securities and insecurities, would be encountered over and over again, in an endless search, a longing, for a resolution of family and home.’
In this following statement Sultan admits to the inability to name what he is trying to do, the exchange below also illustrates clearly that father is still very much the patriarch, maintaining his authoritarian and dismissive tone.
‘A lot of the time it doesn’t make sense to me either. All I know is that every time I try to make a photograph, you give me the steely-eyed look. You know it: penetrating but impenetrable, tough and in control. Or you shove your hands in your pockets and gaze off into some mythical future, which for some reason is about 45 degrees to my left. It’s like you’re acting the role of the heroic executive in an annual report, or in a diorama on success. Maybe you’re looking for a public image of yourself and I’m interested in something more private, in what happens between events – that brief moment between thoughts when you forget yourself.’
‘That sounds good but I think it’s a load of crap. If anything, the picture shows how strained and artificial the situation was that you set up.’
In phantasy, I am suggesting that early attempts of access to mother are swiftly put down by Sultan Snr. The boy is humiliated and shamed, not let in, resentment builds and I am suggesting that the work is a visual representation of these struggles. In Freudian theory the father will metaphorically castrate the boy as punishment for his attempt on desires for mother, so these unsuccessful attacks on father will harbour resentment, he will pick his time more carefully next time. There is a temporary resolution, in the form of identification with father and his super ego is developed further, perhaps as a punishing and more critical inner moral authority. Resentment is repressed until such time the son can mount another attack. These lost battles with father foster more resentment and his need to kill off his father and gain access to his mother are again delayed.
The underlying resentment and wish for revenge in Jr. and the illusion of power within the patriarchal Snr. is maintained. It finds itself peacefully and subtly embedded into the work, unnoticed by his parents, perhaps not fully resolved by the boy. Sultans Oedipal struggle is part-resolved, his strength to repel against parental authority without identification, is his ultimate goal of his art. This anger towards his father is now directed at both parents, he has gained a contact with reality through peaceful means. He has entered the primal scene at last, on his terms, producing the family photograph he wants to present to the world. He has confronted to a degree, the relationship between the three of them, resolving a certain amount of the anxiety.
Here we see a visual representation of the conflict approaching resolution, a form of figurative emasculation. Here, photography is used as the therapeutic tool in the resolution of the Oedipal Dilemma.
Spencer Rowell 2012