Two Days in Disneyland with Larry Sultan

Last week during a trip to San Francisco, I took time to see the show dedicated to Larry Sultan's editorial work at Casemore Kirkeby Gallery. I love his work and looking at them took me back to the two days I spent assisting him in 2008.

My friend Amy called me and asked me if I could do her a favor and assist Larry Sultan(!) in her stead as a schedule conflict came up. At the time, I was largely phasing myself out of being an assistant, trying to make my way solely as a photographer. I knew it was time. I wanted to shoot, not assist and I had become that surly assistant with a bad attitude, having hung around the game a little too long. So I turned down assisting gigs even though it was a tough going and money was tight. But when Amy called about Larry Sultan...Sure, I guess I could help her out. What are friends for?

When I started out in photography, I worked for a period at A&I film lab. During the time I was working there, Sultan was getting images from his "The Valley" project printed for exhibitions. Every now and then, I'd see images from the work mixed in with other jobs coming through the pipeline. I remember the large print, about 4'x5', of "Tasha's third film" just hanging out for months. I'd go back to get an order and always take a moment to look at the print, transfixed at the multiple narratives contained in that one frame: the vulnerable expression of the young girl trying hard to look like a woman, the napping grips, the cameraman pointing the lens at the disembodied intertwined legs of the adult actors lying outside on the grass. I'd be staring at the print thinking "wow, that's a Larry Sultan photo!"

Sultan came to fame with his book "Evidence" a collection of photographs co-curated with Mike Mandel. The book showed the strangeness of America and modern industrial society by showing archival photographs gathered from various industries stripped of context and captions. The viewer's reception and understanding of the photographs and their meanings changed without the necessary context.

His next book was "Pictures from Home" containing portraits of his parents along with old family photos and home movie stills. The book showed how memories of our lives are constructed by photographs, photographs that might not necessarily tell the "truth".

The book following that was the aforementioned "The Valley", a series of photos chronicling the use of middle class houses in the San Fernando valley for porn shoots.

The shoot I was to assist Sultan on was for Cookie magazine, a short-lived parenting magazine published by Conde Nast to illustrate a memory piece about Disneyland. Apparently, the editors wanted him to photograph Disneyland in a "Larry Sultan way".

What does that mean? Larry didn't know either. "What are you looking for", I asked him several times. "I don't know", he'd say. "I'll know it when I see it." So to find "it" we traipsed around Disneyland on two very hot days carting around a Sinar 4x5, Mamiya RZII, Mamiya7 rangefinder, a Nikon dslr, host of lenses and film for each format, speedlights, and battery powered strobes, accompanied by an impossibly difficult minder from Disneyland whose sole purpose, it seemed, was to deny us permission and access.

He had his wife Kelly there to help him produce the shoot. It was wonderful to see how gentle and affectionate they were with each other. Almost heartbreakingly tender. They still treated each other as if they were still on their third date. I could see why he was a beloved teacher at CCA.

The second day of the shoot, we were having lunch when Kelly told a story about a family she saw that morning. The father was trying to take the obligatory "family portrait at Disneyland" and the boy was not having a good day, whining and generally being grumpy. "Smile" the father barked at the boy, according to Kelly's imitation of the dad. Then when the boy did so, the response was "Not good enough. bigger"

I wish I was there to see that. If there was a Larry Sultan moment at Disneyland, that was it.

After two long days, we said our goodbyes. He emailed me some photos from the shoot. I emailed him asking for some advice about a book project I was working on which he helpfully replied to. Later, in a PDN article he said the Disney shoot was an interesting experience but didn't get much in the end. Oh well.

Then just like that, he was gone. A year later, he passed away from cancer. Gone far too soon. I had never been to Disneyland prior to the shoot and I have not gone since. If those two days are the only time I visit that place, I'm fine with that.

Out of respect for Larry Sultan's copyright, I won't post an image from from the shoot on this post. Instead, you can see one of the images by visiting his website. And be ready for some wonderful photographs when you go there.

A Backstage peek at The Thrilling Adventure Hour

With any performances I've been part of, the goings-on of the backstage was as interesting, if not more so, than what was happening on-stage. A performance of The Thrilling Adventure Hour is no different. The TAH backstage is full of people whose job is to be interesting and funny. The energy of the cacophony of multiple conversations of these said people accompanied by the band running through a number or random scales played by an instrumentalist is always exciting because it is this energy that will coalesce into the performance that will have the entire theater ringing with laughter.

Multiple activities- last minute rehearsals, catching up with old friends and meeting new ones (lot's of mutual admiring goes on behind the scenes at TAH), killing time, clowning around- occurs before the show begins which brings on its own flurry of events, moments and hilarity. It's a situation that creates a concentration of events big and small, often funny that is a boon to a story teller. 

The November edition of The Thrilling Adventure Hour was enjoyable as ever with the beloved Workjuice Players hosting guests Rob Benedict, Michael McMillian, Jim O'Heir, Tim Omundson, Rich Sommer, Rich Speight Jr., and Brad Whitford. Enjoy the peek into the backstage of The Thrilling Adventure Hour.

A Visit with Larry Bell

I had a chance to photograph Larry Bell in 2011 during the opening for his show with his friends and colleagues Ed Moses, Robert Irwin, Robert Wilhite and Laddie John Dill. The show was titled "5 Lites" and was part of the Pacific Standard Time series.

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In late 2012, He contacted me about using the resulting portrait of him to illustrate his entry in an art book. I went over to his studio in Venice to sign paperwork and we had this conversation:

Me: Hey Larry! How are you doing?

Larry Bell: Alright, alright. Good to see you. God, I haven't seen one of those in a long time! (He sees a copy of January 9, 1968 issue of Look Magazine in my hand)

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I wanted to bring this by to show you. I'm a big fan of Richard Avedon so I bought this issue because there's a famous spread of the Beatles. Does this ring a bell to you? (The issue is popular amongst Avedon fans for the four-page gate fold spread of the Beatles along with the color solarized individual portraits of them. Along with the story on the Beatles, there is a spread of Irving Penn's portraits of San Franciscans and a photo essay on contemporary artists by Arnold Newman, of which Larry Bell is one of the subjects.)

Yeah, I remember seeing that magazine but I don't remember what's in it...oh yeah, oh yeah. (Chuckles once he sees his portrait)

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Yeah, I bought it from ebay and I'm flipping through it and I'm like, "Holy Cow! Look who's here!" Let's see. "Gallery 68. High Art and Low Art. photographed by Arnold Newman." Do you recall working with Arnold Newman?

Yeah, I didn't like the guy at all.

Oh really! Why not?

He kept wanting me to get behind the piece to shoot my face through the piece and I didn't like the idea of it being used that way. And we had a little...

A "discussion" about that?

No. It was NOT very pleasant. He had a lot of assistants and they were walking around (mimes cowed assistants walking around with hands behind the back trying to be invisible)

(We both laugh)

"WHY DON'T YOU TRUST ME!" He kept yelling at me.

OH wow. How come you didn't want to be photographed behind the work? Did you feel it degraded the integrity of the piece?

Yeah. I have the chance to show the piece in a magazine, the magazine of this stature, and I didn't want to fuck up what the piece was with me in it.

Got it.

You know? So that was my symbol, flipping him the bone.

(Laughter) I wonder if he got it? Did he see that?

I don't know. He took the picture. He used the picture.


Live @ McCabe's photo Install Time Lapse

I am having a show at the school gallery where I teach photography. There is a wall at a corner of the gallery that is like a dead end, posing a problem in what and how to install photographs. Instead of trying to figure out how to create a sense of continuity with the work that is being presented, I thought I'd do a wall of photos from my "Live @ McCabe's" project presented in a scrapbook/workspace style, a little lagniappe to the show. I always enjoyed looking at collections of photos; selects, outtakes, proofs, etc. presented in this manner. And to have more fun with it, I thought I'd film the install of it.

So here's two hours of installation condensed to 1'23". Enjoy! (You can play your own fast/frenetic/uptempo/headbanging music to soundtrack the video)

Backstage with the Thrilling Adventure Hour

I got a call from Ben Acker early January asking me if I'd be interested in photographing the portraits of the actors appearing at the Thrilling Adventure Hour show at the Largo. Ben Acker and Ben Blacker are the creators and writers of the show, a live reading of skits done in the style of old time radio serials performed by the resident company of actors, the Workjuice players, with guest actors from various sitcoms and movies. This was the second time I photographed the ensemble and it's fun and a challenge. The challenge is photographing a large number of actors with little time and very little space to do so. Oh, and there is a dress rehearsal going on for the show so you can't make too much noise and be otherwise disruptive. Thankfully everybody involved with the show is wonderful and great to work with making the challenges easier to deal with.

And photographing such characters is always so much fun! Talented actors who are so accommodating and are able to put on different personas like putting on hats. This time around, after doing the portraits, I took some candids backstage leading up to the show and after. Enjoy the behind the scenes look at the Jan 10th edition of the Thrilling Adventure Hour".

(portraits to come soon!)