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.