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Revisiting Larry Sultan's 'Pictures from Home,' a photo memoir of post-WWII life

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Pictures From Home" is a new show previewing on Broadway today starring Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein and Zoe Wanamaker. It's based on a 1992 photo memoir by the late photographer Larry Sultan about his childhood in the postwar baby-boom generation in Southern California. Before it was a book, it was an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Terry Gross spoke to Larry Sultan in 1989 when his exhibit was on display. Sultan mixed then-recent photos of his parents with snapshots taken in the 1950s and early '60s. By combining recent and old photos, Sultan reassessed his family history and examined his parents' pursuit of the American dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Well, for your project "Pictures From Home," you not only took a lot of new pictures of your parents and their house, but you used a lot of old family photos. So this required you going back and looking at lots of old pictures of your family. Did you find in a lot of the old photos that there was an almost ritualistic quality - pictures taken at parties, at vacations, at certain points in one's life when one is supposed to take pictures?

LARRY SULTAN: Yes. But I think - you know, I think you're right. They were not only ritualistic; I saw them as mythic pictures. And they weren't family snapshots. They were movies, and they were 8 mm films that began in 1942 and, I think, spanned 20 years. And I remember looking at these films and not only seeing them from a biographical point of view - like, oh, this was me when I was, you know, 3 or 5 or 7 - but taking them out of that personal context and seeing them as these incredible myths of - almost an epic of an American family moving from back East to the promise of the new life in the West. And when I took particular stills from those films, I think that mythic quality was even further enhanced. And so they're not only biographical; I see them as cultural artifacts as well.

GROSS: Can you tell me about the range of emotions that you experienced looking back at pictures of your parents when they were young?

SULTAN: Hmm. Boy, that's interesting because there's this phenomena where there's a double vision. All photographs, in a sense, are historical because the moment is gone. And so here I am looking at people who are actually younger than me and seeing that they had a life outside of me. You know, they're not only my parents; they had this independent existence, which is a fairly frightening notion. And it leads you to all kinds of speculation that one doesn't want to get into, you know, about their intimate life.

And so that was an interesting thing, to see them independently and then to also see, I think, the melancholy I felt around the aging process, how, certainly, the vitality of my parents and - I mean, it's inevitable. The body changes, and it's not a sad phenomena as much as it is an opportunity to watch this transformation of the body through time.

GROSS: Now, in addition to old photographs, you also have some old documents in your piece - letters, for instance, welcoming your father into the Eversharp family when he started to sell razor blades. Why did you include some of these old documents, old business letters and things like that? And where did you find them?

SULTAN: Well, it was very important to include those because what I felt I was doing and, I think, what I've done is try to create a pattern of public life and private life, of family and business, of success and perhaps conflict within the family. And so my father's business documents, to me, they not only document his career; I think they really, in a way, indicate a time.

I mean, welcome to the Eversharp family, and you're a team player. And I mean, it was this sense of the '50s that was so full of that optimism and so full of that hope, that one would enter a family and be taken care of and be part of a team and be a team player and believe in the product and blah, blah, blah, you know? It goes on. And it's a phenomenal record not only of that specific event in his life, but, I think, of a time that's no longer available to us. So that's interesting to me - about how you can document a time through a very biographical, personal point of departure.

GROSS: Now, you've had to take a lot of new photos of your parents for your project. Your parents, I'm sure, are used to smiling for photographs. And you tried to get candid shots. I think you, in fact, told them not to smile. What were their reactions to the kinds of photographs that you wanted?

SULTAN: Well, you know, I became a real pain. I worked on this for seven years, and I really strained my parents' generosity. In the beginning, I think it was - you know, I would follow them around. In fact, I went on vacation with them to Hawaii and photographed them. And then, as they got more and more accustomed to me being around, I'd follow them into their bedroom. And after a while, they - in terms of the daily photographs in which they weren't necessarily conscious or posing - although there's always somewhat of a pose - that was fine.

I think the problem really occurred when I would - when we would set up a photograph. And some of the photographs were staged, and there was always this dilemma. My father has a standard, I think, successful businessman pose that he's been practicing for years, you know, this kind of steely-looked and, you know - look-them-in-the-eye and rigid body. And in fact, I think he'd cock his head looking off to the left into the future.

And that's not what I wanted, and there was quite a disagreement about that. And in fact, part of the book is his response to my photographs and his response to the way I photograph and the way I represent him, which I think is a real crucial part of this work because I have no - I wouldn't presume that I'm telling the truth. I'm telling my version of the truth, but it's not the objective version. There is no objective version.

GROSS: Your father said to you that he doesn't like what you call introspection. When he sees one of those photos, he says, for the most part, that's not me I recognize in those photos.

SULTAN: Yeah, I think it's, you know, how we know ourselves. We have this repertoire of selves, I think. And I guess Roland Barthes calls it a repertoire of selves. And I see my father - yeah, well, the side of my father that interests me the most is that vulnerable, introspective side. Now, that's not a side that comes out very often. And it's certainly not a side that one shows to the public. And perhaps to be fair, there is somewhat of a lost look in one of those photographs. And that was important to me. And maybe I'm being accurate to my point of view and not so accurate to him. So he could be right.

GROSS: Do you...

SULTAN: Maybe that isn't him he recognizes. Maybe that's more me.

GROSS: Did you say a lost look?

SULTAN: Yes, a look that has a taste of melancholy to it.

GROSS: Let me describe a photo that I think is exactly that, or at least that's how I read it. And it's a photo of your father all dressed up in a dinner jacket, and it looks like he's probably on the way out. But he's sitting on the bed, just kind of looking off in this dinner jacket. And to me, it reads - all dressed up for a kind of letdown.

SULTAN: Yeah, he...

GROSS: I really like that photo a lot.

SULTAN: Yeah, he hates it.

GROSS: Oh, really?

SULTAN: He absolutely hates it.

GROSS: OK. How come?

SULTAN: Well, because he says that - he created the analogy that it was like having - doing a film, and the actors are taking a break, and that's when you photograph them. And we were actually - I asked him to get dressed up. And we were doing a - he was writing on the wall for me, kind of a mock Dale Carnegie program. And he sat down on the bed just to rest. And you're right - it is all dressed up with nowhere to go in my mind. And that's an ideological photograph. It relates in my point of view to, I think, memory and one looking back on their life. Maybe most of the challenges have been in the past, at least in terms of one's business life. And so, yeah, it's taken out of context. It's a fiction.

GROSS: I want to quote something that you write toward the end here. You say, (reading) behind all the peering, the good pictures, the rows of film and the anxiety of my project is the wish to take photography, literally, to stop time. I want my parents to live forever.

I think that's beautiful.

SULTAN: Thank you. Thank you. There was something that happened to me in the middle of this project that I think was very significant. And, you know, when I begin work, I have really no idea where I'm going to go. But I need to think that I know where I'm going to go. And so I invent all these notions that what I'm doing is sociological or whatever. And in the middle of this project, I had a photograph that I had made that was particularly moving to me. It was a close-up of my father as he was sleeping on a couch, taking a nap in Palm Springs. And I looked at the picture on my desk, and it struck me that there's a chance that this picture will outlive my father, that I'll be looking at this picture one day when perhaps he's not here.

And it really changed my whole notion of what I was doing. I moved from the sociological, dropped way down to the sense that I was making pictures that came from, I think, a need to not only understand my parents but to let them go in a certain fashion, almost like an adolescent lets things go. I'm a late bloomer in that sense. So from that, of course, you know, photography does stop time. And it's a very - it's an exterior form of memory. This existed. I mean, that's its greatest truth is to leave a trace of what has been.

BIANCULLI: Photographer Larry Sultan speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. He died in 2009. "Pictures From Home," written by playwright Sharr White, is based on Sultan's memoir and previews on Broadway today.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews one of his top films of 2022, the Iranian film "No Bears," which is now in theaters. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMSEY LEWIS TRIO'S "THE IN CROWD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.