During a talk he gave to his students at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1980, Larry Sultan opened up about the challenges he faced with his latest series of photographs featuring swimmers in the community pools of the Bay Area. The young photographer struggled to justify this new body of work, as the conceptual and theoretical vocabulary he had developed over the past decade seemed out of touch in this new context. His photographs of swimmers were sensual and strange, setting them apart from the collaborative work he produced with Mike Mandel over the previous decade. During that period, the duo constructed comical billboards around the Bay Area and assembled images for the now-influential photobook Evidence (1977). Sultan was attracted to images of swimmers because of how beautiful and weird they looked when pictured underwater — theoretical justification was secondary. There was a grace and wonder to these images of individuals, couples, and groups floating, drifting, and spinning in a weightless expanse of water.
Four decades have passed since the completion of the series in 1982, now posthumously published as a stand-alone photobook, Swimmers (MACK Books, 2023). The belated reception of Sultan’s series draws attention to how projects come into being, both in how they are made but also in how they live on, inaugurating a future they do not know. In our own time, when a critical public demands a clear message and justification to come out of the work — something to say, some meaning to embody, some clear idea to propel the work — the lesson of Swimmers is insightful: sometimes there is value in not knowing what one is doing.
Sultan’s interest was initially sparked when he stumbled across photographs of swimmers in the Red Cross Lifesaving Manual Swimming & Diving (1938). The images published in the manual possessed an uncanny quality. Its pages were filled with photographs of figures demonstrating different techniques and forms of swimming. In most images, the camera framed these swimmers without heads, their bodies cut in two by the water’s surface. This unconventional framing created a sense of confusion. Viewing the work without a caption, it was not always clear what the swimmers were doing. At times, they looked like lifeless corpses; at other moments, they summoned an eerie vitality as if animated by some otherworldly, undead force.
In 1974, Sultan’s early experiments took an unconventional start, first photographing blind individuals learning how to swim. One can only speculate, but it is possible that this subject matter appealed to Sultan because it emphasized the interplay between visual perception and its absence and the manner in which this absence evoked a tangible sensory experience.
Sultan visited three community pools in the Bay Area to complete the series: the Jewish Community Center, the Richmond Plunge, and the Recreation Center for the Handicapped. To make his photographs, Sultan purchased a Nikonos III underwater camera and used a handheld flash to illuminate his figures. Although his series had no direct instrumental use, his photographs were often shot under a similar frame to the Red Cross manual. The images documented different techniques of swimming, and yet, unlike the Red Cross images, Sultan pushed his photographs to the point of abstraction, where the bodies of the swimmers appeared to melt, warp, and morph when pictured through the refractive prism of water.
Critics who have written about Sultan’s photographs have tripped over the symbolic overtures of what water represents in the larger historical imaginary. For the essay published in Swimmers, photography critic Philip Gefter reads the work through the lens of Carl Jung’s philosophy, seeing it as a summoning of Jung’s amniotic and primordial imagery, citing the work of the psychoanalyst Mi-yeon Eom on ‘water’ in Jung’s thought:
Water represents the origin of all possibilities, indeed the origin of the very universe, hence its strong associations with birth, femininity, and life. The ocean in dreams and fantasies is a symbolic representation of the unconscious. The maternal quality of water is consistent with the unconscious because water could be the mother-body or mother-image in which we are sustained unseen and from which we are born.
Though this interpretation may seem reductive, particularly if we consider its oversimplified connection between gender and an elemental concept, for Gefter, however, there is still a social value to this reading beyond the metaphorical. Gefter argues that Sultan’s channeling of water’s “effeminate” qualities challenged the masculinist art-making doxa of the day. During an opening to an exhibition of his photographs, Sultan recalled a subtle dig a critic gave him during an early presentation of the series. “I remember one critic coming up to me at an opening of Swimmers and saying, ‘I thought you were a conceptualist. You’re nothing but an expressionist.’” Gefter interprets the off-handed remark as a gendered dig, negatively coded as being “excessively emotional, or, in the logic of the time, feminine.”
To extend his reading, Gefter posits one of the last portraits in the series — a body floating horizontally framed by a halo of heavenly light — as a Jungian self-portrait. “Larry, the artist,” Gefter writes, “floating in doubt and uncertainty, yet alert and curious. He symbolizes a condition recognizable to us all — out of our element, tumbling backward as we try to figure things out. The man who fell to earth indeed.” As much as Gefter’s interpretation of the image as a cipher of doubt and uncertainty is appealing, applying a Jungian interpretation to Sultan’s project only obscures its unique photographic qualities and its relationship to the history of photography and photographic abstraction.
During his presentation at SFAI in 1980, Sultan began by discussing how his series was informed by the unique qualities of street photography, a photographic mode known for its emphasis on capturing contingent and everyday encounters within city streets. Sultan took a radical departure from convention by applying these principles to his exploration of the community pools in the Bay Area, a setting that immersed him underwater. In this new context, he transformed the genre into something figuratively abstract.
On this quality of photographic abstraction, early commentators on Sultan’s series have remarked on how painterly his images look. However, the manner in which they convey this relationship through abstraction is less clear. On the one hand, by channeling the pool’s reflective and distorting surface, Sultan’s photographs of swimmers suggest the visual confusion of an Impressionist painting, somewhat akin to the paintings of Claude Monet, albeit underwater. While Monet’s paintings of water lilies in his Giverny garden were driven by a fascination with the mesmerizing reflections nature assumed on a crystalline summer day, Sultan translated this reflective concern underwater into a form of figurative abstraction.
There is an added twist to Sultan’s abstract grammar. His swimmers exemplify a fundamental aspect of abstraction in the late 1970s. According to art historian Briony Fer, the aesthetic principles of abstraction in the post-war period had moved away from the utopian aspirations of the earlier avant-garde, with abstraction no longer tied to aesthetic concerns of autonomy, metaphysics, or cosmology. Fer argued that if abstraction was to continue in the 1970s, it needed to find currency in the social field. During the late twentieth century, abstract art was no longer envisioned as a separate entity, autonomous and detached from society. Sultan’s photographs add to this argument — the bodies of his swimmers are figuratively abstract insofar as they undergo constant distortion, mutation, and fluidity when submerged in the community pools of San Francisco.1
Sultan’s photographs of swimmers read as an anomaly in the artist’s oeuvre. Gefter describes it as a transitional project between his collaborative work with Mike Mandel and his other celebrated photographic series, Pictures from Home (1992) and The Valley (2004). While it may not be immediately evident, collaboration still played a pivotal role in Swimmers. Sultan shared not only the same environment and constraints but also occasionally the same fears as his subjects, and these constitutive elements compelled him to continue working on the project. Subsequent solo projects all shared this collaborative spirit as their foundation.
For Swimmers, however, the series was not the first time the artist took inspiration from found images. Sultan’s early forays in the history of found photography were first sharpened in a collaborative exhibition he staged with Mike Mandel, titled Replaced, held at the Darkroom Workshop/Gallery in Berkeley, California, in 1975. For that exhibition, Mandel and Sultan collaborated to re-stage ‘found’ photographs of images culled from the Eastman Kodak Company instructional book Clinical Photography (1972). The Kodak manual had a primary aim of educating amateur photographers in the art of capturing clinical images, placing significant emphasis on the technical aspects of framing, lighting, and arranging patients’ bodies within various medical settings. However, it is important to note that these photographs were often overdetermined by the male gaze, and had elements that were semi-pornographic and gruesome. They masqueraded as clinical and objective imagery, yet concealed a more sinister aspect under the guise of medical-photographic education. This quality was akin to an unspoken elephant in the room, but what fascinated them even more was the fact that these images were unlike any photographs typically displayed as art.
Replaced not only expanded Sultan and Mandel’s exploration into the realm of found photography but also marked a significant moment in the duo’s artistic development. It laid the foundation for future collaborative works, where they delved deeper into the intersection of found photography, clinical imagery, and the disruption of the official documents of technocratic reason and control. After the exhibition of Replaced, Mandel and Sultan self-published the influential photobook, Evidence (1977). The photobook was assembled from a collection of found photographs amassed from the archives of seventy-seven corporations, government institutions, and research bodies located up-and-down the California coast. Mandel and Sultan took two and a half years to compile and complete the project, and during this time, they looked at over 2,000,000 photographs. At the end of their research, the pair had collected more than 500 photographs that were eventually sequenced down to 59 images in the final edition of the book. These corporate and institutional documents were salvaged from what Sultan called “the dustbin of history.”2 The participating corporations included General Atomic, Bechtel, NASA, the US Navy, Stanford Research Institute, and Lockheed (among many others).3
Art historians have interpreted Mandel and Sultan’s photobook as a critical look at the photographic archive, actively de-coupling the image from its source and divesting the image from any meaning.4 This interpretation is supported by the strategies employed in the photobook: the absence of captions, the absence of an explanatory essay, the separation of the named institution from the photograph (the names are given only as a list in the acknowledgments), the erasure of the geographical specificity of the photographs, the omission of isolated sections or chapters, the drift towards abstraction in form and content, the inexplicable actions of each subject, and the otherworldly quality of the technological machinery depicted. As critics have argued, the photographs assembled in Evidence resist interpretation and contradict their evidentiary nature as documents of technocratic reason, truth, and objectivity.4 And yet, the project is far from “meaningless,” as many have also argued.
Assembled in the lingering shadow of the American War in Vietnam (1955–75) and in the broader context of the Cold War, Mandel and Sultan’s photobook destabilized the traditional codes and conventions of the documentary image through a collection of catastrophic scenarios ranging from gruesome workplace accidents to intimations of nuclear apocalypse. In its form and content, the project possesses a dystopian quality where humanity’s connection with nature is characterized by manipulation and disaster — a relationship devoid of freedom, with science and technology harnessed to enforce oppression and establish dominance. Images of bureaucratic control are shadowed by destruction, death, and disorder.
Although the subject matter was strikingly different, this dialectical oscillation between the feeling of control and the loss of control is turned on its head in Sultan’s photographs of swimmers. At the level of the individual, water is an uncontrollable force. Learning how to swim involves harnessing that force so that you will not drown. There is freedom, joy, and beauty in this experience. But contained within this thought is the recognition that this force cannot be mastered, only harnessed and channeled.
“Making art is about giving up control,” Sultan remarked in his 1980 artist’s talk at SFAI. To make a photograph, so much of it depends on the exigencies of the day: the angle of light, the gestures of his figures, the feeling of the moment. With Swimmers, these contingencies of the medium are extended underwater and brought to bear within the constrictive space of a community swimming pool. It should be stressed that Sultan never used snorkeling gear to photograph the series. In relying on his own air supply, he was working with a subtle constraint: the photographic moment would last no more than sixty seconds.
With this physical constraint in mind, one can imagine Sultan with his camera in one hand and his goggles around his face, taking a big deep breath, diving below the surface, opening his eyes, and quickly adjusting himself to the array of bodies surrounding him, only rising when he felt himself running out of air. What might assemble itself before his camera may appear quick and rapid (like a diver breaking below the surface) or slow and methodical (like a floating body that barely moves). Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Sultan had a hard time justifying these images in the process of making them. Too much of it was based on the roll of the dice, the contingencies of the day, the sheer pleasure of seeing a body experience water for the first time.
When thinking through Sultan’s confused and uncertain feelings of not-knowing, I returned to an early passage he wrote for a project he completed a decade later, Pictures from Home (1992), a series of photographs of his parents in their twilight years. Similar to Swimmers, Sultan was just as unsure about the shape and purpose of Pictures from Home in the midst of making it. “What drives me to continue this work is difficult to name,” Sultan wrote in the pages of Pictures from Home, struggling to place the project and justify why he turned to his parents and his family growing up in Southern California as a photographic subject. Clarity could only be achieved by picking up the camera and taking another photograph, and another and another:
“[I]n the odd and jumbled process of working everything shifts; the boundaries blur, my distance slips, the arrogance and illusion of immunity falters. I wake up in the middle of the night, stunned and anguished. These are my parents. From that simple fact, everything follows. I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.”
Doubt and uncertainty might have served as the starting point of the project, but as the work developed over time, as one photograph grew from another, the fog and confusion of how to start and sustain a project gradually gave way to the clarity derived in throwing oneself head-long into the act of making images. Yet clarity is a fickle thing–it is not always straightforward or easy to understand. For Pictures from Home, Sultan developed and gained momentum by staying with the project, returning to his parents, scouring home videos, realizing the desire for his camera to stop time, to immortalize his parents before everything slipped away. For Swimmers, however, the project was sustained by plunging below the surface, raising the camera to his eye, and seeing how weird and beautiful the world might look underwater.
- Briony Fer, “‘States of Abstraction’: Lygia Clark and the Problem of Art,” lecture presented at The Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, accessed February 20, 2023, https://vimeo.com/88910543.
- Charlotte Cotton, “Two Guys from Van Nuys,” Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel (Köln: Walther König, 2012), 22.
- The first institution they visited was NASA’s Ames Research Laboratory. In addition, the two artists also visited several public photographic archives, such as Pacific Telephone, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles, and the police and fire departments in the Bay Area. During the later stages of the project, the duo left California and briefly visited the photographic archives of government buildings in Washington, D.C.
- In one of the first comprehensive essays on Evidence, Carter Ratcliff emphasized this reading as well as Sophie Berrebi for her book, The Shape of Evidence: Contemporary Art and the Document (2014). For these writers, the very intelligibility (or unintelligibility) of the photobook goes hand in hand with what they see as the obscure and random shape of history. Photographer and critic Joan Fontcuberta pushed this point in a short review of the republishing of Evidence in 2003. When posing the question, “Evidence of what?” Fontcuberta concludes with a pithy response: “Perhaps evidence only of its own ambiguity.” If ambiguity marks the status of evidence today, Fontcuberta asks: “What remains, then, of the document?” To which Fontcuberta does not answer. Sophie Berrebi, Shape of Evidence: Contemporary Art and the Document, (Amsterdam: Valiz/vis-à-vis 2014). Elsewhere, Philip Gefter claimed an analogous point, emphasizing the incoherence of the project: “Individually, the pictures take on surrealist properties subject to endless narrative interpretation, [but] collectively, the sequencing creates a running narrative with no coherent story.” See: Philip Geftner, ‘Whose American Dream? (Somewhere between Pretext and Subtext)’, in Larry Sultan: Here and Home (Munich: Prestel 2014), 16. See: Joan Fontcuberta, ‘Evidence of What?’, Harvard Photography Journal, vol. 9: Fantastic, 2005, http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~hpj/evidence.htm, accessed 22 May 2015.
- The photobook remains intent on undermining the concept of the document and documentary evidence on the whole, if not the entire legal, scientific, aesthetic, and political system upon which these documents are based.