Review: Katherine Avenue by Larry Sultan


Book Reviews, Photobooks


I’ve always thought that it was unfortunate that “Evidence,” produced by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, is considered to be so important. This is not because I think “Evidence” is a bad book - it’s because I feel that it casts too big a shadow on the work Sultan did afterwards: his own photography. It goes without saying that “Evidence” is great and influential and “a watershed in the history of art photography” (source). But I’m not going to remember Larry Sultan as the photographer who assembled “Evidence” - I’m going to remember Larry Sultan as the the photographer who produced truly amazing photography about life in California. (more)

Of course, once you mention “California” and “photography” in the same paragraph, all kinds of associations are triggered, and I’ll happily ignore all of them. That’s easy for me to do since, in the context of this review, I’m a critic: Just like petulant little children critics can do whatever they want! So there! (or maybe :-P to stick with the lingo of this medium) Add to that that I grew up in Germany, and despite having lived in the US for a decade now (and thus being fairly familiar with its stories and myths) I’m still a stranger here.

Oh, and California drives me nuts. No, really. I can’t pretend I know a lot of it, but I can’t view a place where the sun always shines with anything else but deep suspicion (I’m also a writer right now, and writers can simplify as much as they want, to get some point across - so there again!). I have no idea how you can actually take a good photograph in a place like that, especially in the areas where they have palm trees and blue skies. As it turns out, Larry Sultan managed to do just that, take good, no, great photographs in California. It’s slightly unfair to remove one label (“the guy who did ‘Evidence’”), only to apply a new one (“the guy who took great photos of life in California”). But it feels like a better label, one that does the legacy of this American photographer a bit more justice.

Katherine Avenue, released at the occasion of a retrospective at the kerstnergesellschaft (Hannover, Germany), collects three of Sultan’s series, “Pictures from Home,” “The Valley,” and “Homeland:” Photographs of family, of large and generic houses used by the porn industry, and of day labourers/immigrants. Each series is gently - yes, that’s the right word here - introduced by the photographer, with just a few sentences that say so much, without taking anything away from the photography. In each case, the photography is stunningly masterful, showcasing the artist’s profound respect for the other, regardless of whether they were extremely reluctant parents, porn stars who had yet another photographer present, or day labourers hired by the artist for an image.

Retrospectives often suffer from the problem that a lot of the images are very nice, and then you have your one or two famous masterpieces. In the case of Katherine Avenue things are somewhat different, because despite the presence of quite a few very well known masterpieces, there aren’t any obvious fillers: It’s one highlight after the other. It’s quite amazing.

The importance of “Evidence” notwithstanding, Katherine Avenue contains the photography I will remember Larry Sultan for.

Katherine Avenue, photography (and short essays) by Larry Sultan, essay by Martin Germann, 120 pages, Steidl, 2010