Photography Books,  Reviews

Book Review – Larry Sultan’s ‘Swimmers’: A Fascinating and Immersive Dive into Emotion and Eternity

Book Review – Larry Sultan’s ‘Swimmers’: A Fascinating and Immersive Dive into Emotion and Eternity

All images – Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Larry Sultan, a luminary of the photographic world, left an indelible mark on visual storytelling through his captivating body of work. His exploration of the human experience and memory unfolds in his masterpiece, “Swimmers.” This comprehensive review delves into Sultan’s artistic journey, the profound context of ‘Swimmers,’ and the echoes of his legacy, marked by his passing, that resonate within the series. The review examines Sultan’s career, the emotional intricacies of ‘Swimmers,’ and the impact of his artistic choices to illuminate the profound narrative that encapsulates his mastery.


Larry Sultan: The Visual Sage

Larry Sultan’s photographic odyssey transcended the confines of the medium. Sultan’s artistic evolution, punctuated by inventive experimentation, crystallized his status as a visual sage. His trajectory, encompassing both collaborative conceptual projects and individual endeavours, mirrored his fascination with humanity’s intricacies, memory’s labyrinth, and the art of narrative. Sultan’s lens often hovered at the intersection of the quotidian and the profound, a space where his unique vision flourished.


Unveiling ‘Swimmers’: A Submerged Poetry of the Soul

To comprehend “Swimmers” fully, one must grasp Sultan’s divergence from his collaborative conceptual realm. The series, spanning from 1978 to 1982, exposes Sultan’s personal odyssey into physicality, sensuality, and painterly aesthetics. Inspired by black-and-white documentary photographs in a Red Cross swimming manual, Sultan embarked on a mission to encapsulate the visceral depth of being submerged.


The outcome is a corpus of images that traverse documentation, embracing transcendence. ‘Swimmers’ propels learners navigating the pool’s surface into ethereal dancers, whose graceful movements are mirrored by fluidity and emotion. Sultan’s photographs engender an almost synesthetic experience – one can almost hear the ripples, taste the chlorine-laden air, and sense the tactile touch of water. Each photograph, enriched by refracted light and serendipitous abstraction, becomes an ode to sensory immersion.


Painterly Aesthetics: A Symphony of Visual Verse

Sean O’Hagan’s assertion in The Observer New Review – “painterly and impressionistic, filled with movement and gesture” – captures the essence of ‘Swimmers.’ Sultan’s compositions forge an alliance between aesthetics and emotions, invoking visual verses. Colour harmonies, textural juxtapositions, and ethereal gestures coalesce, inviting viewers to decode the enigma of human experience. The ethereal ambiguity Sultan embraces invites viewers to embark on an interpretative voyage, where the narrative is as much a product of the artist’s vision as it is an introspective exploration by the observer.


The Dichotomy of Beauty and Disquietude

The New York Times Book Review’s description of the ‘Swimmers’ photographs as both “lyrical, dreamlike dances” and “documents of American life” encapsulates the enigmatic duality Sultan captures. These images oscillate between the serene and the unsettling, mirroring the fragile equilibrium of existence. Sultan’s lens unveils not just the choreography of bodies but the choreography of emotions – an allegory of human life’s intricacies. Amidst tranquil aquatic landscapes, shadows of vulnerability and ambiguity linger, creating a narrative tension that reverberates through the human psyche.


The Legacy: Sultan’s Passing and ‘Swimmers’

Larry Sultan’s artistic journey, sadly, was marked by his passing in 2009. His departure, while a loss, paradoxically magnified the potency of his legacy, which resonates within “Swimmers.” The photographs in the series, frozen in time, became poignant relics of Sultan’s presence. As viewers immerse themselves in the fluid tapestry of ‘Swimmers,’ they engage in a dialogue not only with the subjects but with the artist himself.


In Conclusion: The Immortal Elegy

“Swimmers” transcends the realm of photography to become a multidimensional exploration of the human experience, memory’s labyrinth, and the enigma of existence. Sultan’s underwater sojourn is a symphony of emotion, a dive into the abyss of feeling and form. His departure amplified the reverberations of his legacy within ‘Swimmers,’ solidifying the series as a timeless elegy to human connection, vulnerability, and the eternal voyage of art.

Embossed hardcover
30 x 25.2cm, 144 pages

ISBN 978-1-915743-05-3
April 2023
€60 £50 $65 – Click here to order

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