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Book Reviews: Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel

Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel. Photographs by Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel.
Published by Distributed Art Publishers, 2012.
Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel
Reviewed by George Slade

Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel
Photographs by Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel. Text by Charlotte Cotton, Connie Lewallen, Thomas Wagner, Carter Ratcliff, Jonathan Lethem.
Distributed Art Publishers, 2012. Hardbound. 264 pp., 190 color illustrations, 10x11-1/2".


I was immensely saddened by Larry Sultan's death in 2009. I had only encountered him once or twice in person, for brief exchanges after lectures and over books being signed. I regret that his passing deprived me of further exchanges with a man I realized was extraordinarily eloquent about his own work and about the work of photography in general. I hold his Pictures from Home series (and the 1992 Harry N. Abrams publication of that work) in high regard, even though it had long puzzled me; once I heard Sultan speak about it, the accomplishment rose several notches, though the ambiguity was still grandly present.

The fact that grey areas permeated Sultan's work is highlighted in this new monograph documenting his collaborations with Mike Mandel. If nothing else, the book celebrates "negative capability," which essayist Carter Ratcliff expounds upon in his important exegesis on Evidence, the crowning achievement of the Sultan/Mandel enterprise. The question Ratcliff poses, which might be read as a mission statement for the "two guys from Van Nuys" (as Charlotte Cotton dubs them in her thorough introductory essay), is:
How can an artwork be at once intelligible and ultimately resistant to any conclusive interpretation? ... For if we insist that a work of art has a single, neatly circumscribed meaning, it can only be for a bad reason: to promote some agenda, for instance, or because we can't abide uncertainty. (page 204)
Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel, by Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel. Published by Distributed Art Publishers, 2012.

I must further confess that I came to know Mandel during my time in Boston; I arranged to exhibit the project he did with his wife Chantal Zakari about the power of political iconography in Turkey (which resulted in the 2010 book The State of Ata) at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. In getting to know Mandel I came to understand even more acutely what I had missed in not knowing Sultan; there was, and is, a trickster brilliance to both men that emerges simultaneously in the works they contrived together.

This book does not try to separate their achievements or assess what each brought to the numerous projects that bear their names. There is room given to each man's work as an independent artist—like Lennon and McCartney's solo projects apart from the Beatles—though this is background to a chronicle and an investigation dedicated to the partnership.

Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel, by Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel. Published by Distributed Art Publishers, 2012.
Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel, by Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel. Published by Distributed Art Publishers, 2012.

On the strength of the research and interpretation accomplished here, not only does Evidence emerge as perhaps the formative stylebook for understanding the shape of photographic art in the late 20th and early 21st centuries (I mean it. I defy anyone to look at that collection of anonymous images and not see templates, or at least discernible precedents, for work by known contemporary image-makers.), but Sultan and Mandel prove themselves to be pioneers of public art, having recognized that meaning and context engage in a subtle, nuanced dance played out by images in front of barely aware eyes. Looking twice, or thrice, is an advisable strategy in considering the wide range of projects opened up for examination in this book.

Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel, by Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel. Published by Distributed Art Publishers, 2012.

Despite an opening tribute "in memory of Larry" and a colophon crediting The Estate of Larry Sultan, the late artist lives through this multi-dimensional book. Process photographs show how both men evolved from early 1970s longhaired students at San Francisco Art Institute to canny leaders of student billboard workshops in Chicago, the Bay Area, and Boulder, Colorado and, later, into the savvy image aggregators of Evidence and Newsroom, their 1983 installation at the Berkeley Art Museum which examined the conventions of photojournalism against which their Evidence photographs rebelled. The latter, stripped of context and explanation, maintained the grey areas of ambiguity that characterize the vibrant and stimulating conversation in images carried out by Sultan and Mandel over three decades. The language used in the dialogue questions more than it answers, but that, as Ratcliff's essay notes, is one earmark of the most accomplished art.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/

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