The Quakers have a kind of secular prayer; in the face of darkness or uncertainty, they “hold in the light” a person in need of compassion or optimism. Two years after the death of Larry Sultan — extraordinary artist, teacher and Bay Area presence of over thirty years — I hope to honor and remember him in this way. In the light. As he was to many, Larry was the best teacher I have ever had. I came to study at California College of the Arts because it meant the chance to work with him, to know him (or try to know what he knew), which I did for the year before his passing. It’s hard to believe that it was just a single year; Larry became such an important and forming person in my life that I am still running things by him in my head.
What I really learned from Larry was not just how to be a good student, or artist, but how to be the best kind of teacher. Larry was generous, darkly funny, and sharp, though never in a way that cut. He could charm the birds out of the trees. More than anything, Larry made himself vulnerable to his students, never presuming that he knew more than we did (though, of course, he did). He challenged us to be deeper thinkers by way of mutual curiosity. Larry wrote in an email to a few of his students, myself included, in August of 2009, “I’m not sure how it works, but I often feel spoken through during the meetings. I’m not sure you share my feelings, but quite often I leave your studios like something really good has happened — and it’s happened because there was a real exchange between us all, that we acknowledged but weren’t overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in being artists and in trying to talk about art.”
For all of this, my own recollections of Larry wouldn’t do him justice alone. He was too big. I’ve asked a small group that knew him well — a curator, a colleague, several former students and assistants — to contribute to honoring his memory two years after we lost him. I am still adjusting to living in a world without Larry, which is simply not as funny, honest and interesting as a world with him in it. Feel free to share your own comments or memories on this piece.
Image by Jon Rubin, Larry dancing at Jon’s wedding
Whitney Hubbs, former student: Two years have passed and I continue to feel like Larry’s on my side, like we’re on the same team. He made me feel like the path I was on was the right one… and I know that because he told me so one night, a night in his honor, he made the gesture to put me at ease. Larry taught me to be giving, to breathe more, to see lyrics in the everyday, and to know when to pause and let things go and at the same time when to reflect on a memory.
Sandy Phillips, Curator of Photography, SFMoMA: I suppose the association I have with Larry is about how we both grew, and how photography also grew and changed. I knew him from the beginning of my tenure here, when the museum was in the old Veteran’s Memorial building, a structure that was built for the Museum when it opened in 1935, and from which we moved in 1995. The photography department then — so this is over twenty years ago, maybe 23, like the museum itself, were much smaller entities, and the community was tiny, everyone knew each other. One of the first shows I organized featured Larry’s work with his parents, what became Pictures from Home. It was all so modest and casual then, and the photography program was definitely considered marginal to all the new work coming out of Germany and New York that the museum was featuring, but we had each other, so we were both very interested in each other and what we were doing. Larry and I would often have lunch together — a practice we continued and which we both enjoyed — he was my friend, and I was his, too. In a real way, Larry challenged us in the museum — by his obvious intelligence and his great gifts, and by his ambition, too. I think we both were not quite able to believe the massive interest in photography that developed, though both of us worked hard to get it there. And Larry had fun at it, too — he worked hard, but he was having a good time. And he was making good work, and knew it.
Image by Lindsey White, Larry’s photographs at the National Portrait gallery
Ahndraya Parlato, former student: When I think about you, one of the first things that comes to mind is your generosity. I remember talking on the phone before I decided to go to CCA and you pulling over on the highway to talk to me. We hadn’t even met. I think about the level of seriousness and intention you invested everyone’s work with. We spent hours sequencing my book and I felt the gravity of my decisions in the generosity of your time. We were doing urgent and important work, and so it became. You never made anyone feel rushed or unimportant, even though you were always busy. What magic! I can only half pull it off and I have only a portion of your responsibilities.
You were soulful. You wanted to cut straight to the wound. But you weren’t overly sincere in that weird way that makes people seem disconnected from reality. You had a wicked sense of humor — it was absurd, mischievous, and more than a bit perverted. You had a way of making people feel comfortable. Of making them want to share unshared things. I see you in the light, in the cross-over where good becomes better, and understanding lies slightly out of reach. Wherever you are, I hope they have a nice dance floor.
Image from Lindsey White, documentation of her “Larry pin” guiding her way, 2010
Todd Hido, former student and colleague: In these 2 years since Larry’s passing I think, for me, one thing that has really stood out about him not being with us is how much I deeply miss his intelligence and insight. I am just about to complete a body of work that will become a book of images that he has never seen; this is a first for me.
Larry confirmed for me that I was not still a naive Ohio boy and that I had actually made something worthy of existing in the world. He made me feel as if what I could say with my pictures actually mattered, just as he had done when I first had him as a teacher.
I felt as if I had passed a test each time as I walked back down the long, long path of wooden planks that led to and from his home. I clearly know it was really his validation that I had sought, more than just simple feedback on my sequence and selection.
It is curious recently when I am doing a critique or giving a lecture just how many of the concepts or ideas I have about photography had first come to light in me through him. Even things in my way of working that are cornerstones for my voice, he first pointed out to me that I had possessed them. I am so grateful and forever indebted to him for that.
Image from Jennifer O’Keefe, the back and front of a postcard Larry sent Jennifer after working together
Jennifer O’Keeffe, former student and assistant: Home. Larry was always thinking about home, peeling back the layers, the textures that defined it for him — the heavy bedroom curtains, the soft green carpets, the grasslands and canals behind the fences of Antioch and Concord. “It has to be almost nothing,” he would say as we set up the 4 x 5 in the swampy terrain, in the fading light. It was a slippery pursuit, brave — the difficult kind. Thinking of it now, of his questions, of his intense longing to describe, sustains me on mine.
Larry made me feel at home here. He greeted me at the door; he was my advisor, my mentor. Sitting across from him in conversation has been one of the great privileges of my life. He could floor you with a brilliant sentence then break into infectious giggles. After lectures and events, the crowds would break and scatter and he was there — leather jacketed, smiling, up for a talk, a drink, or a friendly inquisition about the work at hand. He was generous and inclusive, still harboring the kid in him like a firefly in the fingers. I feel like he treated us all like that firefly, like that kid — holding us close, making sure we didn’t get crushed, that our lights were in good working condition. One by one, with the utmost care, he guided us toward home.