For Pictures from Home, Larry Sultan spent much of the 1980s photographing his parents and trying to come to grips with his own transition into adulthood, “confronting my confusion about what it is to be a man in this culture” (26) and trying “to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.” (28)
It’s a masterwork of image and text. When I reached the end of it, I started to cry.
This isn’t something that happens to me too often, and it takes something especially moving to get me weepy. There’s something about the honesty, the unflinchingness of it that gets me, maybe. Whatever it is, Pictures from Home is a great book, and I don’t know how I made it this long without becoming aware of it. Sure, it’s one of those great photobooks that went out of print long before I became aware of photography, and the 1992 original isn’t something you’re likely to find at the local used bookstore, but still. A book this good should’ve made it across my radar before now, especially given my longstanding interest in books that combine images and text.
But here it is, and I’m grateful to have a copy, and thankful that Mack (and Sultan’s estate) reprinted it so more people can have access to it.
Mack’s newish reprint of Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home is gorgeous, in keeping with all the other Mack books I’ve seen, but I wonder what’s changed from the 1992 original. The publisher’s blurb reads, in part
Significantly increasing the page count of the original book, this MACK design of Pictures From Home clarifies the multiplicity of voices – both textual and pictorial – in order to afford a fresh perspective of this seminal body of work. Emphasising the cinematic motion of the family’s home videos, the Super-8 film stills have been newly digitised and magnified, with select scenes running full-bleed across double-page spreads. Meanwhile, Sultan’s photographs of his parents as they go about their daily lives – against the quintessential backdrop of the Reagan-era American dream – are supplemented with previously unpublished images. Most significantly, the book honours Sultan as the oft-hailed ‘King of Colour Photography’.
There are some images of spreads from the original and the reprint on Photocaptionist, and it’s clear that, in addition to enlarging the 8mm frames, there’s been some rearrangement. I suppose it doesn’t matter much, the Mack version of Pictures from Home got me weepy, and who knows if the original would do the same.
Pictures from Home is, first of all, a portrait of Sultan’s father. Transcriptions of conversations with and monologues from the elder Sultan appear throughout the book, often questioning the photography and Sultan’s process. Mrs. Sultan’s words also appear, with somewhat less regularity, and usually to give another side to Mr. Sultan’s version.
In an oft-quoted line, Sultan writes (p. 107)
I’m married and have two kids, own a house, shop in the malls, read the business section of the newspaper, take my shirts to the laundry, catch myself continually calculating my savings, and worry about dying from various terminal illnesses. Was it that different when he was forty-four? Did he feel the same intensity of doubt and confusion as I do? Was he haunted by all of the things he was unable to be? Would he have been willing to trade hours of his day to collect fleeting sensations of his childhood? Did he suck in his stomach every time he passed by a mirror?
I feel similarly about my own father. I turned 40 not long ago. I remember my dad’s 40th birthday. I was 14 and his wife and I put together a small birthday party for him on one of my last every-other-weekends with him. He worked in a Ritz Camera store at the time, I think. Did he feel the same intensity of doubt and confusion as I do? Would he have been willing to trade hours of his day to collect fleeting sensations of his childhood? Did he suck in his stomach every time he passed by a mirror? I know I do, but I don’t have the closeness to my father that would allow me to even inquire, never mind undertake such a beautiful and moving project. Really, that’s probably what got me so weepy.
In a blog post written after Sultan’s passing, Alec Soth wrote “Has there ever been a photographer who writes better than Sultan? I’m certain that nobody has done a better job combining text and pictures. In this regard, Pictures from Home is the absolute zenith. Plainspoken, smart and brutally honest, it is a masterpiece of narrative photography.”
Pictures from Home is readily available all over, and if you don’t have a copy, you owe it to yourself to pick one up. It’s a great book.