The Sultan of Ambiguity and the Unbuilt Walls

Two large exhibits of the work of photographer Larry Sultan juxtapose themselves with the serendipity of Alex Nichols and Mushi Wooseong James' cryptic white box.

Serendipity is every artist’s elixir, though certainly not the only one. For Larry Sultan, the opportunities of photography took him to places that were off-limits for most people — including homes in California’s San Fernando Valley, where porn stars were having sex for directors’ cameras, and Hollywood settings, where Paris Hilton, Helen Mirren, Sylvester Stallone, Morgan Freeman, and other celebrities posed for his camera.

Sultan took many of those images for magazine and commercial assignments, but they have a level of mystery that is also present in the projects that Sultan undertook of his parents in Southern California (“Pictures from Home”) and of day laborers he hired to pose on land tracts near his Marin County home (“Homeland”).

Sultan’s lifetime of photography — including an early collaboration with artist Mike Mandel — who gets his own SFMOMA exhibit starting May 20 — is festooned across the third floor of SFMOMA in “Larry Sultan: Here and Home.” Meanwhile, some of his magazine and commercial assignments gets their own exhibit at Casemore Kirkeby’s Minnesota Street Project gallery in “Larry Sultan: Editorial Works.” (Minnesota Street Project also has, through April 29, a photo exhibit of billboards that Sultan did with Mandel, and a “Fake Newsroom” project that relates to Sultan and Mandel’s 1983 Berkeley “Newsroom” project.)

“Larry Sultan: Here and Home” is Sultan’s first career retrospective, and it arrives eight years after his death from cancer at age 63. Sultan refused to prettify his subjects, but there was also beauty — obvious beauty — in many of his images. That nagging overlap between “the good life” and something else — that push and pull that leaves the viewer with conflicted feelings — is what makes Sultan’s work so memorable.

His father, Irving, recognized that ambiguity and called his son out for it. In Dad on Bed from 1984, Larry Sultan shows his father sitting in a dark-blue suit during the day. Tight-lipped, Irving Sultan has his hands crossed tightly, too, and he’s looking to the right of the camera. Clothes are piled up behind him.

“Whose truth is it?,” Irving Sultan asked, in words that are displayed prominently on SFMOMA’s exhibition wall. “It’s your picture but my image. Like the photograph of me sitting on the bed, maybe I’m a little bored, but I’m not melancholy, longing for the old days of Schick or waiting for death.”

Larry Sultan died at a time when he was recognized as “one of the great photographers of our time,” to quote SFMOMA director Neal Benezra. In 2009, Sultan had just been elected to the museum’s Board of Trustees after a career of notable accomplishments — including heading the California College of the Arts’ photography department, garnering fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and publishing acclaimed books.

One of the most powerful images from Sultan’s “Homeland” series is the 2008 image Antioch Creek, in which a day laborer sits under a tree that’s spiraling outward with pink blossoms. On a normal day, that laborer might find himself in a parking lot instead – waiting to be hired by a Marin County resident who gave him enough money to do manual labor. On that day in 2008, Sultan placed him in a setting that Sultan equated with his own childhood in Southern California.   

Ambiguity, Sultan once said, is “really important to me. Part of the difficulty facing photographers is that almost any subject matter has accumulated a representational history, so to find a new discursive space, a space to wander around those subject matters, is a real challenge.

“If I know too much,” he said, “if the narrative is too well-formed, I’m making pictures that are illustrative, and as a maker, that’s not interesting. As a viewer, that’s not interesting.”

One of the things that connects Sultan’s work with that of Alex Nichols and Mushi Wooseong James: Both involve a personal connection between artist and subject. Sultan, Nichols, and James aren’t merely observing the world and taking pictures. No. They’re manipulating it a bit, directing it, orchestrating it. They’re participating in a kind of make-believe that is both ordinary and magical — but it’s a dream state that’s much more Jean-Luc Godard than Walt Disney. Pretensions get jettisoned. The people in focus are unmasked, even if they’re doing their best to “look the part.”  

On a 2008 editorial assignment for Cookie magazine, a publication aimed at high-income mothers with the income to travel, Sultan took photos of Disneyland — including one shot of an African-American guard sliding a burgundy curtain to reveal a raven-haired princess in a flowing blue gown. The princess, standing before a castle and looking directly at Sultan’s camera, is a Disney-fied version of a young girl’s fantasy. But the dutiful guard is the photo’s primary focus. Sultan subverted the fantasy by including someone who’s usually excluded. He bridged different classes and widened the circle. It’s a small world, after all.  

Alex Nichols and Mushi Wooseong James, Soraurer Strausse, Berlin. (Courtesy of the artists and Modernism Gallery.)


Not long ago in Berlin, a young couple named Celine and Philipp walked down a tree-lined street in the Kreuzberg district — an area with a long history of immigration and countercultural doings — and saw a large, white foam box on the sidewalk. They also saw San Francisco artists Alex Nichols and Mushi Wooseong James, who encouraged Celine and Philipp to enter the box and, using two objects that were already inside, communicate as a couple. The only conditions: No speaking and no touching. Oh, and two other things: Anyone on the street could watch the couple frolic away, and Nichols and James would record their doings.

What happened next is what happens wherever Nichols and James set up their three-sided structure, whether in Berlin, Tokyo, Los Angeles, or San Francisco: People entered their box to think outside the box. The box broke down barriers by imposing them. The box was a paradox.

“Inside the box, there are only two rules, and in society there are a thousand, so inside the box you’re basically free,” Nichols tells SF Weekly. “You see people get in and they’re really nervous for the first two minutes, but then they start navigating — and I think they start to remember. For children in a sandbox, it doesn’t matter if they speak the same language — they just get in and they interact. That’s why we have two objects, so they can play with and interact with.”

The photography and videography from Nichols and James’ sidewalk outreach is on display at Modernism West Gallery, in a show whose title emphasizes the unburdening that happens with their street art: “Alex & Mushi: Unbuilding Walls.”

And the box works wonders. In Los Angeles, two sisters in their 20s who’d had a hardscrabble childhood told Nichols and James that their time in the box was the first they’d ever played with each other for fun. By being thrust into a space that is completely white, where verbal or physical touching is forbidden, a person is more likely to see a different side of themselves and to see the humanity in another person — beyond whatever constructs he or she might have of that person’s gender, race, or other social categories, Nichols and James say.

The idealism — and the randomness — that’s inherent in “Unbuilding Walls” is reflected in the way Nichols and James met two years ago in Sausalito. A San Francisco native who had recently been evicted from her art studio, Nichols was sitting at an Indian restaurant’s outside table and writing Japanese characters into a journal. James, who is of Korean descent and grew up in the United Kingdom, was in Sausalito for an artist residency, and wandered by.

“He said, ‘Why are you writing Japanese?,’ ” Nichols says. They took to talking and found out they had a lot in common, including their belief in open dialogue and conceptual art projects. A short time later, after James attended Nichols’ previous exhibit at Modernism West, they began what became the “Unbuilding Walls” exhibit, now at the same venue.  

“I thought,” Nichols says of that previous day in Sausalito, “that I would never see him again.”

“Larry Sultan: Here and Home,” through July 23 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or

“Larry Sultan: Editorial Works,” through June 10 at Casemore Kirkeby, 1275 Minnesota St. Free; 415-851-9808 or

“Alex & Mushi: Unbuilding Walls,” through May 31, at Modernism West Gallery (inside Foreign Cinema), 2534 Mission St. Free; 415-541-0461 or

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Related Stories