Larry Sultan: Boxers, Mission Hills, 1999, from the series “The Valley,” chromogenic print, 40 by 50 inches; at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

A pivotal photograph in this retrospective is a favorite of mine that Larry Sultan and I discussed briefly four years before his death in 2009, at age 63. Boxers, Mission Hills (1999) is from the series “The Valley” (1997-2003), shot at various locations in the San Fernando Valley where porn films were being made. The image shows dogs feeding near a house with a swimming pool, while a woman steps away, exposing a well-formed leg. Like the dogs, the house belonged to the woman, who, Sultan told me, rented it to porn production companies and often performed in the films herself. She had given her boxers a snack to keep them quiet. Their backs lead the eye to the similar shape of her platform shoe with a stiletto heel, visually linking the dogs’ animal instincts to her own.  

The placement of this work is equally provocative: it hangs near the end of the gallery devoted to Sultan’s earlier series “Pictures from Home” (1982-92), rather than in the next gallery with other examples from “The Valley.” Exhibition curator Rebecca Morse clearly wants to blur the line between these two projects set in Valley houses. “Pictures from Home” was made at and around Sultan’s parents’ home, which they never rented out for nefarious purposes. Morse’s installation underscores the ambiguity intended in both projects and the relationship between them.

Sultan’s images of his handsome parents in their luxurious retirement dwell on the humdrum aspects of their lives and, especially in his father’s case, on moments of seeming dejection. In one photograph, the aging man stares blankly into a swimming pool very like the one behind the woman in Boxers, Mission Hills on the opposite wall of the gallery. The pool is empty and looks neglected. We can see that below its normal water line it has a dark scruffy coating. Sultan’s father, shirtless and in shorts, looks as if he’s about to disappear into a black hole. Contrarily, one picture from “The Valley” in the next gallery is of two young women crouching in a well-appointed kitchen with big smiles on their faces. If it weren’t for the fact that both are naked, we might take them to be housewives admiring a new kitchen floor or some other domestic improvement during their morning kaffeeklatsch. 

Other works from “The Valley” show the professional life of porn stars to be as listless as Mom and Dad’s leisure. The sexual fantasies being filmed are discreetly hidden behind bushes or otherwise screened from view. It’s the revealing downtime of these people that interested Sultan.

The earliest images in the LACMA survey are from the book Evidence, done with fellow photographer Larry Mandel in 1977. In the volume (and its concurrent exhibition), 59 anonymous, decontextualized documentary photographs—found in corporate archives—took on a surrealistic new life. For his last project, “Homeland” (2006-09), still under way when he died, Sultan employed Mexican day laborers to act out scenes he staged, such as one in which a man wanders in a field in the Central Valley, looking as forlorn as Ruth amid the alien corn.

Sultan’s entire career is compelling and worthy of renewed interest. Yet, because of the strange reciprocity between them, “Pictures from Home” and “The Valley” remain the two major achievements of the artist’s career.