Fun times! In this review, I’m looking at books from my own growing-up world, the celebrated/ridiculed San Fernando Valley suburbs north of Los Angeles/Beverly Hills proper. Turns out Mike Mandel, author of the recent People in Cars, was in my high school class! How do I know? Well, I didn’t know him at all back then (big school, lots of cliques), but I picked up at copy of Good 70s, the reprints of first printings of a lot of his work from the 1970s, and when I got the orange box home, well, its contents looked awfully familiar, as in, This could’ve been my life. I reached out to Mandel and found out that, yep, it was my life; he’d caught that particular Valley ennui and pointlessness perfectly because we were in it together.
I got out of the Valley as soon as I could (I’d had enough ennui and pointlessness; ended up in New York City), and so did Mandel, but the cultural afflatus remains. What’s the Valley known for? Well, besides Moon Unit Zappa’s ’80s song “Valley Girls”—gag me with a spoon—pretty much car culture and porn. For porn, we’ll talk about Mandel’s friend Larry Sultan later in this piece, but for now, let’s look at Mandel’s People in Cars.
This is Valley life: driving everywhere, often for no reason; cruising Van Nuys Boulevard trying to pick up girls or not get into fights (don’t think anybody does it now, but back in our high school days, it was a huge deal); parking up in the hills and trying to make it with your date … life in the Valley was car life, and Mandel captures it perfectly.
His car-life story begins on the cover, one of those silver-ink-on-black-paper deals that seem in vogue these days. I like it. I also like the sultry, puffed-lips look and back-seat eyes of the blonde in the passenger seat. Did I lust after her in chemistry class at Grant High? Did Mandel steal her away? Damn good chances both.
So, again, I’m right at home in this book, but since Mandel’s photos are so uniformly strong, you will be, too. People in Cars is not just a sociological examination, it’s a beautifully printed, rich black-and-white deep look at all the ways people disport themselves in automobiles. There’s grumpy granny, sunglassed, silver-haired, puffing away on her Kent cigarette. There’s the paisley-shirted (and, of course, sunglassed) driver leaning over to flip off Mandel as he takes a snap, no doubt from his own car. There’s I’m-gonna-whump-your-ass goateed dude, with knife-fight-back-of-the-liquor-store eyes. And look, another smoker: glare-y high school girl just lit up, the glowing dashboard cigarette lighter hot in her hands.
More Angelenos: Look, it’s a girl having fun sticking out her impossibly long tongue. There’s why-you-taking-my-damn-picture scowly woman, with a, yes, impossibly long Salem 100 between her nicotine-stained fingers. And a sleepy kid, no, two of them, one up front, the other in the backseat, both sucking on their thumbs. One can only imagine the orthodontia bills!
And just to counter the I’m-gonna-kill-you guy and the bird-flipper, here’s some cheer: a smiling dark-haired girl flashing the peace sign, and pages along, Santa himself. No doubt sweating on his way to his gig at the long-gone Galleria mall at Ventura and Sepulveda (where I once bowed down before a signed copy of Moon Unit’s “Valley Girls” in a Licorice Pizza record store).
So I like this book because it’s my old home but what about you? Well, the range of expressions, emotions, composition, and downright humanity in Mandel’s car photos should enchant anyone. People in Cars is a fine example of the one-subject book: How many great photos can you come up with around one thing? Mandel isn’t alone in going with automobiles. I just pulled Lee Friedlander’s America by Car off my shelves. The main difference: Friedlander is shooting the country from his car, most often the driver’s seat (all those rear-view mirrors!) as he roamed about. (Snapping endless photos as you putt along … as dangerous as texting? Let’s write a Times op-ed piece.)
Friedlander, as with Robert Frank before him, uses his car to cruise through America as he digs deep, deep, deep into it. Mandel is first of all looking into cars; he’s also far more interested in people and their endless ways of acting out while inside an auto. His is a more interior book, no pun intended, but I’d argue still quite rich in its examination of America. Again, just think about the variety of what people are up to while they tool along the Valley streets.
And just to make the book better, there’s a playful touch from the photographer who created the iconic Photographer Baseball Cards (in 1975, Mandel spent a lot of time in rattly gas-guzzlers driving around the nation grabbing shots of photographers such as Ed Ruscha and Imogen Cunningham, then working them, pre-InDesign, into mocked-up trading cards): In People in Cars he’s included a bumper sticker in the back of the book. If it were still the 1970s, I’m sure I’d slap the sticker on the rear bumper of my car; I also probably would have chewed up the gum in the baseball card packs, too, if I’d been lucky enough to buy a set (no doubt diminishing its collectible value by half). As it is, I’ll just admire a sheaf of fine photos replete with Mandel’s characteristic light touch and joy in the simple act of making pictures—and always his subtle, telling jokes.
Not so playful is Larry Sultan, in the new version of his autobiographical Pictures from Home.
Sultan, a pal of Mandel’s and a fellow Valley-ite, and Mandel’s co-author on the essential catalogue of found corporate photos, Evidence (just rereleased by D.A.P.), sets his own books in the San Fernando Valley. As mentioned above, there’s The Valley, his study of the houses used as sets for the porn industry, pornography perhaps being the Valley’s only unique business once the dairies turned into tract homes and aerospace and the Chevy plant shut down. Not my favorite book; personally, I’d rather just watch Boogie Nights again.
But in Pictures from Home, Sultan goes deep, deep, deep into his and his parents’ lives, and the book is, and always has been, a keeper. (The edition I’m reviewing here is Mack’s reissue/revision from earlier this year.)
In a recent article, The Guardian called Pictures from Home a “visual memoir that is also an exploration of the all-American family.” That it is, but what struck me, growing up at exactly the same time—and as Google maps just showed me, less than a mile away from each other—is how far his folks are from my own family. My dad was in aerospace (till it went the way of coal mining); Sultan’s dad is far closer to the flim-flam salesman world (he sold razor blades for Shick all his life). Look at his silver hair, his perfect suit, all the pictures in a bedroom that could in later years be reborn as a porn set. I read Pictures from Home as I would read any autobiography: to discover a life, a history, and to plunge as far into all of it as one can.
And also to hugely admire Sultan’s nerve. I mean, lots of people write autobiographies, about their parents, home life, difficult upbringing. But that’s done probably miles and miles away in front of a computer screen.
Larry Sultan instead went home and took pictures of his parents doing everything they did. Here’s how that went: “I wake up in the middle of the night, stunned and anguished. These are my parents.”
The photos are truly telling. There’s his dad in shorts practicing his golf swing on a shag carpet in front of a picture window, a perfect Valley day outside. There’s his mom in a lime-green dressing gown in the doorway of her lime-green room with the lime-green shag carpet (or is it avocado; I’m not as up on my grotesque suburban color schemes as I could be). There’s a shot of the parents in their living room, furniture-less, getting ready, as the text tells us, to abandon their former lives and move out to the desert to retire.
Then there are the dozens of historic photos, snapshots of Sultan’s folks when they were younger, as social as can be, dressed up or out mowing the lawn, loving golf, in swimming pools (ah, the Valley, a swimming pool in every backyard; ours was kidney shaped, and my friends and I spent all summer in it), even a shot of Irving Sultan’s Dale Carnegie self-improvement course’s full class, lined up grammar-school-class-photo style.
This is the whole story of his family, narrated by Sultan in clear, matter-of-fact prose. He looked at his world, his life, his upbringing, his parents … and did it unflinchingly.
And with far more order and wildness than the last autobiographical photobook with words I reviewed here, Jim Goldberg’s The Last Son. In Pictures from Home the personal story is typeset, not hand-scrawled. Unlike with Goldberg, we don’t learn that much about Larry Sultan (at least not advertently; the book’s true focus is more ambiguous), but it is easy to infer that Sultan was far less rebellious.
But no less an artist. And no less a writer.
Pictures from Home is a good read. Yet it’s more than that, too: an exemplary model of how to turn what in some ways is a family scrapbook, potentially barely interesting even to the family in it, into a compelling work of art, meaningful to anyone. Sultan pulls you into his family history, and you can’t put the book down. He also masterfully blends his own anxieties about the project he’s undertaken with his father’s own story, along with comments by his mother (both in italics in the book), and the plethora of historic family snapshots with the beautifully composed shots Sultan made for his difficult project.
As with all biographies, auto or not, there’s a bit of invention involved. As the New York Times reported in Sultan’s obituary (he died in 2009, at 63), after telling his father how to appear in a picture taken of him on his bed, Sultan says that his father told him, “Any time you show that picture, you tell people that that’s not me sitting on the bed looking all dressed up and nowhere to go, depressed. That’s you sitting on the bed, and I am happy to help you with the project, but let’s get things straight here.”
Maybe it is more Sultan’s story than his father’s. But the story is also so vivid and well told (through both the writing and the photos) that it could be anyone’s; it’s that identifiable, and the themes are timeless: How did our parents come to have us? What choices led to their establishing our homes? What happens when we leave those homes? Can we ever go back? And, ultimately, how do we hold on to our parents, as they age, move, sweep closer to death?
And that eternal question with any group of photographs: Even with an exact representation (photographic evidence, indeed), where does truth truly lie?
Again, Sultan’s father seems to get it: “All I know is that when you photograph me I feel everything leave me. The blood drains from my face, my eyelids droop, my thoughts disappear.” Mr. Sultan is worrying that Larry’s shots don’t capture his truth at all. “If anything,” he says on the next page, “the picture shows how strained and artificial the situation was that you set up.”
Larry responds: “Sure, it was a charade, but I’m talking about how the image is read rather than what literally was going on when it was made. There’s a difference. Don’t you think that a fiction can suggest the truth?”
And of course his dad has the perfect rejoinder: “Maybe, but whose truth is it? It’s your picture but my image.”
Timeless questions. A book that really is a damn good read, lifting beyond scrapbook to the power and sweep of a novel. Also, of course, an essential photobook, fortunately again easily available in its new Mack incarnation.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Carnival of Souls are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here). In Spring 2017, Dunn taught a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.