Larry Sultan – Swimmers

Between the late 1970s and early 1980s Larry Sultan produced a series of underwater photographs in public swimming pools in Northern California. A body of work which at first glance looks unlike anything else in his oeuvre, Swimmers appears to be a departure from the more conceptual approach of Sultan’s earlier output. It was met with a mixed reception:  as one critic responded to seeing it exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, ‘We thought you were a conceptualist when it turns out that you are merely an expressionist.’

Sultan’s career could, perhaps crudely, be divided into two halves: his collaborations with Mike Mandel in the 1970s onwards and his solo work published in the 1990s and early 2000s. His projects with Mandel, identifiable by their more conceptual nature, reflect a fascination with the proliferation of images within American society and play with the malleability of their meaning or meaninglessness: recontextualising technical photography in Evidence (1975-1977) and occupying advertising billboards with allusive imagery in Billboards (1973-1989). Sultan’s later solo works also addressed the iconography of American society. However, they adopt a cleaner, more editorial aesthetic. The images, which could be torn from the glossy pages of lifestyle magazines, reveal tensions underlying American cultural values. In Pictures From Home(1992) long marriages become stretched and tense; porn stars play house in the McMansions of homeowners presumably failing on their mortgages in The Valley (2004); and Homeland (2007-2009) sees migrant workers isolated and exhausted in the hinterlands of the Californian suburbs.

Swimmers, produced from 1978-82 in the interval between his collaborations with Mandel and the release of Pictures From Home, is presented as a stand-alone project, visually and conceptually distinct from his broader artistic output. In the press surrounding the release of Swimmers the word ‘painterly’ recurs constantly. The pictures are variously described as impressionistic, sumptuous and other vaguely wet sounding adjectives, all of which attempt to allude to that quality of formlessness inherent to water.  The book’s accompanying essay by critic Philip Gefter refers to Swimmers as a ‘transitional body of work’ ushering in an era of more sensitive or self-reflective making for Sultan. Gefter draws on Jungian psychoanalysis to suggest that the work serves as a therapeutic confrontation of his childhood fear of water and draws on its associations ‘with fertility and motherhood’. It is understandable then that viewers encountering the work might be inclined to read it in Expressionist terms as an exteriorisation of the artist’s inner life.

However, rather than the projection of his own emotions, it is the material properties of water that spurred Sultan to abandon figuration. He uses the abstraction of light that occurs underwater as a conceptual framework to investigate a more universal experience. Suspended in water, his subjects become at times almost entirely unrecognizable: their bodies are distorted, faceless, and fluid; they encounter a different set of social and physical boundaries. Photographs throughout the book depict these encounters; bodies float and sink, collide and drift, often appearing in a state of surrender. This relinquishing of control seems fundamental to Sultan’s conception of the work: ‘They were made at a time when I found that much of my artistic activity was cut off from my body. The activity of photographing and the pictures themselves frightened me.’

This idea of being cut off from one’s body relates to both the process of making the work and its final appearance. Sultan attempts to resolve his feeling of disembodiment by making his practice something which engages his entire anatomy. The act of making photographs becomes more physically challenging and the ability to engage intellectually with his subject matter difficult. You hold your breath, dive underwater and respond intuitively to what you discover. When you come up for air, it is gone.

The resultant photographs resonate with Sultan’s own experience. His subjects are also cut off, torsos are depicted headless, or with limbs missing or distorted by the water. At various points these figures combine with one another, becoming a shapeless mass of body parts. Among the locations featured in Swimmers are the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and the Recreation Center for the Disabled. It is interesting to consider the fixity of these identities and their indistinguishability here. Sultan disregards these personal details, instead presenting a more universal experience with a kind of humanistic clarity. Ambiguous and abstract images are punctuated by moments of recognisable intimacy: friends playing together, a young couple with hands clasped around each other’s waists, mothers teaching infants to swim. The images have a feeling of improvisation, at once synchronised and dissonant.

In some ways the book seems like a documentation of performance art or contemporary dance. Subjects test their anatomy in the context of this new medium. Instances of frenzied movement are interspersed with isolation and stillness. It becomes unclear if people are fighting to get above water or sinking into the depths, pulling each other to the surface or pushing one another down. The challenge of resolving this ambiguity reveals a commonality between the photographic frame and the swimming pool: two fixed structures attempting to impose their solidity onto their fluid contents. This too is reflected in the book’s design. It has a textured cover which washes between shades of blue with its title and Sultan’s name embossed in silver foil. Inside it adopts something akin to a black cube aesthetic with images printed on black paper on facing pages. This black cube serves both as a container which attempts to give shape to its contents and a void in which the images float freely.

Throughout his career Sultan displayed an acute sensitivity to the relationship between the aesthetic properties of images and the societies they reflect. Despite its initial appearance as an outlier in Sultan’s oeuvre, Swimmers presents a key moment in the development of his artistic output. The relationship between form and meaning in many ways aligns with his work with Mandel, in particular Evidence. These formal inquiries are furthered as Sultan begins to explore the relationship between photography and society as structures which attempt impose shape on their contents. His works Pictures from Home, The Valley and Homeland would depict the experience of these boundaries, what happens when their contents begin to spill, and the physical and emotional labour required to attempt to maintain their rigidity or mask their spillages. Where Swimmers differs is in Sultan’s revelry in the inability of these structures to constrain us. He abandons the mental constraints of the photographic medium and dives head first into the unknown, reminding us that we are all parts of a giant formless mass floating in the void, and how beautiful and terrifying that is.

- Published by c4 journal