Interview with Sharr White

Photographer Larry Sultan’s iconic photobook Pictures from Home, initially published in 1992, found renewed acclaim with its 2017 re-release by MACK. Sultan’s intimate exploration of familial bonds captured the attention of audiences worldwide, culminating in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1989.

The impact of Sultan’s photographic series resonated deeply with playwright and screenwriter Sharr White, inspiring him to develop the eponymous play. Premiering in early 2023 at Studio 54 on Broadway in New York, White’s production masterfully translates Sultan’s visual narrative into a moving theatrical experience.

Sultan’s work centers on the intricate dynamics of family relationships, notably with his father. Drawing from his family archive, Sultan interweaves candid portraits, family memorabilia, and poignant snapshots from home videos. Accompanied by personal texts and transcribed conversations, Sultan’s images offer a compelling glimpse into the complexities of love, loss, and familial connection.

The cover of the photobook Pictures from Home by Larry Sultan, accompanied by the photograph “Los Angeles, Early Evening / 1986”, was released in 2017 by the publishing house MACK. © Estate of Larry Sultan and MACK

Marika Tsouderou (ASX): While researching Larry Sultan and his book Pictures from Home, I read about how you brought this project to the theatre. I found it very interesting and moving that this work still inspires creators and remains relevant after many years. I read that you discovered it in 2015, six years after the Sultan’s death, as part of his first career retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. What moved you with Pictures from Home?

Sharr White: My experience with Larry’s work had been limited at the time. Once I was at the retrospective, I suddenly recognized the most famous works – as you do – most of them from his series The Valley. But once I found my way into the Pictures from Home section I was utterly captivated. Next to the famous piece Dad on Bed was text from the book:

“Maybe, but whose truth is it? 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.”

I was immediately captivated. Here was an image of a man, an intimidating man, whose discussion with his son about his son’s work was both completely disregarding and yet totally engaged, reflecting a profound consideration about the nature of image, of ownership of image, of art. I immediately wanted to know everything about them.

Larry Sultan, “Dad on Bed / 1984”, from the series Pictures from Home. © Estate of Larry Sultan

ASX: What motivated you to engage with his work? What do you share in common?

White: What I love about Pictures from Home – both the artwork and the play – is that my experience of it, like Larry’s during his process, changed as I changed. As I grew older, as my sons grew older. I have two sons, aged seventeen and eighteen. When I began the project, they were eleven and twelve. Like Larry, I think my exploration was about fatherhood and maleness. My sons were just beginning to challenge me in a very male, confrontational way. And, like Larry, my interpretation of his work has become about mortality. You can’t help but feel time rushing by as you stand still, steeped in these images. You lift your head out of it, and you think… ah. That was fast. It’s all going so fast. 

ASX: Is there a specific photograph that inspired you? I haven’t seen Sultan’s works up close, but I believe they could have a different interpretation outside the book’s context, namely when the accompanying texts are missing.

White: It’s difficult for me to choose a favorite. The images I used for the play are all deeply loaded now, trembling with my own experience. And you’re right, the photos could, and do, have a different interpretation outside the context. Which is actually the genesis of Larry’s life’s work. Untitled Home Movie Stills was precisely about that: stripping an image of context, of linear narrative, so that in isolation the image is open to the viewers’ own narrative. The images in Pictures from Home work the same way: when viewed within the narrative of the book, they fully become the narrative Larry intended about his family… and yet they each retain a mystery: what was the moment before? The moment after? You want to step through the frame and live every millisecond of the moment captured. And yet, when viewed in a gallery scenario, the images – just like his Untitled Home Movie Stills – become stripped of the book’s narrative. Larry felt that images contain many different narratives, and each narrative can be true and can live side-by-side with the others. I think that’s why his pictures are so mesmerizing.  

Larry Sultan, “Practicing Golf Swing / 1986”, from the series Pictures from Home (MACK, 2017). © Estate of Larry Sultan and MACK

ASX: While writing the theatrical play, did you feel the need to stay close to the original work or was it only a source of inspiration?

White: It was very much both. I wanted very badly to know the story behind the story and to delve into the truth of him so that I could then begin my interpretation of the artwork. Larry’s widow, Kelly Sultan, was instrumental in my process. She’s become a dear friend, and we spent many hours talking about Larry’s process, what their lives were like as he was working on the project, and who his Parents, Jean and Irv, really were, what his relationship was like with them. It’s very interesting to me that Larry, in the book, never articulates what became clear to me after getting more information on his parents: that in many ways Pictures from Home is deeply Oedipal. His was a – sometime struggle, sometime competition, always an exploration – with his father about ownership of the family image. In particular the image of Jean. These are two men grappling with each other about ownership of the female. Break that essence down allowed me to step into the play with an operating theory.

ASX: How did the work change and remain unchanged during its adaptation from the book to the stage?

White: The structure of the book is very impressionistic; beautifully so. And as such, without a story arc. I decided early on that the play wasn’t just about Larry’s exploration of his parents, but about his search for the what of the project. It was something he struggled with: what was he doing? Why was he doing it? Was he wasting his time? And, as he moved into year six, seven, eight, that question became quite urgent. All of which wasn’t a narrative in the book, but needed to be a part of the play’s narrative. The play became not just a reflection of the book, but about the struggle of making it.

Larry Sultan, “My Mother Posing / 1984”, From the series Pictures from Home (MACK, 2017). © Estate of Larry Sultan and MACK

ASX: You went for dinner with the artist’s widow, Kelly Sultan, and convinced her to let you option the book. Did she have any hesitations?

White: Our relationship began with a long email from me, which turned into a long exchange and then a long, emotional phone call. I was in California just wrapping up shooting a television show, and on the way home to New York, flew to the Bay Area. Kelly had invited me to their home. We had a long, very wonderful, fairly boozy evening, during which she pretty much pledged the support of the estate. Did she have any hesitations? I can’t imagine she didn’t! But following that dinner, friends of hers and Larry’s threw a small dinner, and I that was my true vetting. At that point, I’d only had a few scenes written, but that was the beginning of a very rich, very profound back-and-forth with Larry’s artistic protectors, including Kelly. They were invaluable. 

ASX: During the play, photographs from the book and static images of the Sultan family home movies are projected onto the stage’s back wall. What is the licensing process you went through?

White: My agreement with the Estate of Larry Sultan was a fairly standard adaptation agreement. As for licensing, the play will be published by Samuel French, so they will handle licensing moving forward. But the agreement includes the photos used in the production. The most important thing is to figure out the mechanism by which the high-resolution files can be distributed for future productions, while being protected from distribution. 

Larry Sultan, “Untitled Home Movie Stills / 1984 – 1992”, Super 8 film stills by Sultan’s parents, from the series Pictures from Home (MACK, 2017). © Estate of Larry Sultan and MACK

ASX: What were the difficulties you faced concerning the production of the work until its release?

White: I won’t say that I didn’t face difficulties, but anything in that vein I would regard as creative exploration. It was a very, very deep, rich investigation with the actors and the director, Bart Sher. Between Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein, Zoe Wannamaker, and Bart, there were decades of experience present in the room. The back-and-forth was very exciting and at times, very intense, but one of the greatest I have ever been a part of.

ASX: I read on your website: “As adapted by Sharr White, Pictures from Home adds another layer to Sultan’s exploration: that of a volatile and loving relationship between parent and son who employ image as their proxy for an Oedipal struggle over dominance”. Can you elaborate on this?

White: After many discussions with Kelly Sultan about the Sultan family dynamic, It became very clear – as if it isn’t from the text of the book – that Irv was at the same time an incredibly dominating, and deeply sensitive, figure. Clearly, in his project, Larry was working out the fact that his father was a body that exhibited unfathomable gravitational force on his family: they orbited him. In his journal entries and letters, Larry exhibits an almost indescribable sensitivity to his father’s moods. As well as a constant seeking to express his love for his father. My interpretation of the work is that Larry was, perhaps unconsciously, or perhaps cannily, making a statement about his father that he perhaps couldn’t make to his father’s face. I think Pictures from Home is both a tribute, an act of profoundest love, and a sly rebellion; Oedipus challenging his father’s primacy by daring to pry beneath a lifelong cultivation of image.   

The theatrical stage where photographs from the book are also projected onto the stage’s back wall. © Alec Soth / Magnum Photos

ASX: I will focus on two points in Marilyn Stasio’s review: “In a clichéd search for his own identity, Larry is hellbent on ‘researching’ his father’s uneventful life for generational clues”. I don’t believe that the way he seeks his identity is clichéd. From the book’s first pages, although we see his mother and father, Larry is also a part of them. We feel he is photographing his relationship with them, rather than the individuals themselves. The combination with family photographs precisely serves the purpose. He is seeking his parents’ identity to find his own. Additionally, I can’t agree with the following comment: “…with its ugly green ramp leading to nowhere because there’s nothing to reach for, either visually or dramatically”. The green colour is present throughout the decoration of the house; I even believe that is why the book is green on the outside. Do you share the same opinion?

White: Marilyn Stasio’s review was even more intellectually bankrupt than Jesse Greene’s was for the Times. Firstly, that she could find Larry’s search for identity “cliché” shows that she knew nothing of the source material to begin with. Which was made glaringly obvious when she chose to attack the set. Anyone familiar with Larry’s book would recognize that the choice of color was directly, and carefully, mined from the photographs. Were we supposed to choose a banal palette lifted from a Ralph Lauren Home catalog instead? Further, anyone who actually observed the set would realize that it is a camera obscura, with the sliding glass doors acting as a lens. Her visual taste is as bad as her writing. The true insult in her review – and Jesse Greene’s – is that she acted as if she had been familiar with Larry’s works for years. I challenge her to prove otherwise because her supposed expertise rings false: “Nothing to reach for, either visually or dramatically”? What I can guarantee is that the one thing no one will ever reach for is a complete volume of Marilyn Stasio’s reviews. That’s the opinion I will share in this regard. 

Photos of Larry’s mother, Jean, in the actor’s dressing rooms. © Alec Soth / Magnum Photos

ASX: From my point of view, the whole truth of this body of work, beyond the sociological conclusions we draw from the photographs about the institution of the family, the American Dream, and social identities, lies in what Michael Collins wrote so accurately in the Guardian, that when Larry Sultan visited Walter de Maria’s artwork, Lightning Field, in New Mexico with his family, he said: “We went to look at art, but we ended up looking at life”. And Collins notes that, in essence, Sultan achieved the same thing with his art. What’s your interpretation of Sultan’s work?

White: I agree. I couldn’t say it better than that. Larry’s images have a way of reaching into the unknown past and the unknown future and somehow stringing you, the viewer, into that history. He plunges you into something much greater than the individual.

ASX: Are there other similar works that might interest you? Is there a dialectical relationship to Sultan’s work?

White: Now? Absolutely not. Living with my imagined Sultan family for five years, and then bringing the play to production, has been the creative highlight of my life. How could I ever do something like it again? The next project has to be entirely different.  

ASX: What was the most moving comment you got from someone who watched your play?

White: The most moving comment wasn’t a comment at all. It was during tech rehearsal. A Times photographer who knew Larry, and revered him, was taking pictures of our process. And as we began working through the final moments of the play, he set down his camera, sat quietly in a chair in the front row, and wept. That one moment, for me, was worth everything.

Map illustrating the primary locations where the photographs were captured. © Philippos Avramides


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