by Sarah Nardi
I was reminded of the photographer's work while reading about The Canyons, a forthcoming movie from director Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis (Less than Zero, American Psycho). The movie stars Lohan, bravely cast against type as a failed actress, and James Deen, a prolific porn star making his first foray into mainstream film. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine chronicled the daily travails on set, which culminated the night a four-way sex scene was to go down between Deen, Lohan, and two other porn actors. Writer Stephen Rodrick describes the bizarre scene that night in the stark Malibu mansion where the movie was shot: Deen, a seasoned performer with more than 4,000 films under his belt waiting, patiently and professionally, to get it on; the journeyman porn stars, brought in for the day, milling around naked, killing time; and Lohan, perhaps understandably, locked in a closet, allegedly with a drink, refusing to come out until Schrader, age 66, disrobed to make her more comfortable. For Sultan, this strange little shit show would have been pay dirt.
In his 2000 photographic essay The Valley, Sultan documented the day-to-day operations of the porn industry in California's San Fernando Valley. Most of the nondescript kitchens and bedrooms in which you would've seen scenes play out had you ever watched a porn belong to real homes, many of which are located in San Fernando Valley, the nation's pornography capital . Sultan accompanied production crews into these homes, capturing scenes that, in a different context, would seem only slightly bizarre. A nude man stands in a sun-dappled kitchen staring thoughtfully through the window—it's a peaceful, even somewhat beautiful image until you notice the black cables snaking along the wall and remember that beyond the frame, the room is full of people waiting to shoot a porno. Sultan captures women in sweatpants and curlers, their faces painted in garish tones, and shirtless men reclining on ugly couches, eyes closed. They could easily be scenes of run-of-the-mill suburban malaise as there is very little in the actual photographs to clue you into the truth. But it's the context—what Sultan, and by extension the viewer, knows of the activity that isn't pictured—that gives the images their power.
And that, patient reader, brings us to Wittgenstein, who began the Tractatus with the proposition "The world is everything that is the case." It sounds simple enough on its face but think about it long enough and it's a devastating mindfuck. How can we ever know with certainty what is or is not the case? Language? Language is a social construct. If you and I agree that the sky is blue, is it necessarily the case that the sky is blue? What is blue, really? It's a sound we've all agreed to make in reference to a visual phenomenon. But because what we've all agreed to call blue can only be perceived on an individual sensory level, how can we know with certainty that we're all perceiving the same thing in the same way? Follow this thinking long enough and you may end up where Wittgenstein once did, believing that we can never know with certainty anything beyond ourselves. We can't know anything of the external world because we can't confirm anything as objectively being the case.
I often think of Wittgenstein when considering photography because much in the way we assume words correspond to reality, we think of photographs as representations of objective truth. Photography is the medium of documentary, after all. And though we all know it can be staged and manipulated according to the photographer's point of view, we assume that photography, to a significant degree, captures elements of reality as they objectively exist. But does it? Is there any such thing as an objective reality or does everything in our world rely on the context that we ourselves create?
This idea is perhaps best expressed in Sultan's seminal work Evidence , a 1977 book of photographs he compiled with collaborator Mike Mandel. Culled from government and industrial archives, the black and white images are all photographic documentation of experiments of indeterminate purpose. Sultan and Mandel offer no research, no exposition, and no conjecture. They leave the viewer merely with the images—of a shaved monkey held down by a human hand, a solemn-looking man in his underwear attached to wires—and then with the realization that without context, these images prove nothing.
Sultan's last project before he died of cancer in 2009 at age 63 was Pictures from Home, a photographic essay featuring his mother and father, who had been forced into early retirement. The images of Sultan's father, Irving, are gut-wrenching. He is seen practicing his golf swing in his underwear in front of the TV, and sitting forlornly on the edge of his bed in a suit. He is a dejected man tossed aside by a society that no longer has a need for him. In an interview, Sultan later recounted that he had instructed his father not to smile and that in turn, his father instructed him: "Anytime you show that picture, you tell people that that's not me sitting on the bed looking all dressed up with nowhere to go, depressed. That's you sitting on the edge of the bed."
So now back to Lohan, Wittgenstein, porn, and the Tractatus—you may think that the idea of a connection there is a stretch. But to that I would merely counter that you and I choose to see things differently.