Marco Breuer on Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan's Evidence
In 1977, Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan self-published Evidence (the imprint, Clatworthy Colorvues, was a joke: Mandel found that name on the back of a postcard). To better understand the context of this publication, I met with the wonderful Kelly Sultan, Larry’s widow. We went through boxes of prints from Larry’s archive. I called Mandel with a long list of questions. He mentioned a number of interesting influences—E. J. Bellocq’s Storyville Portraits (1970), John Szarkowski’s From the Picture Press (1973), and Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), among others.
Starting at a local NASA office in California, Mandel and Sultan went to over one hundred archives across the country. They worked from opposite ends of the files and met in the middle. At the end of the day, they handed over a list of numbers. A couple of weeks later, they would get 8-by-10 prints in the mail.
Looking at the many outtakes in Sultan’s archive now, I began to understand why many standout images didn’t make the final cut. They were clearly chosen for their visual strength, but in the end they turned out to be too strong. Take the images of animal experiments: they are powerful but hard to look at, and, most problematically, they are too easy to connect to.
As the project progressed, Mandel and Sultan honed in on what it was they were looking for. They had an ongoing conversation about “hot” and “cold” images, about juxtaposition and sequencing, about which images can live next to each other without pushing too much onto the others. They were looking for photographs dealing with a particular paradox: you should be able to figure out what the image is about, but you can’t. It does not reveal what it should. Mandel and Sultan were able to find this singular quality again and again.
For me, the images in the book have always produced a powerful sensation: I see, but I do not comprehend. Looking through the book again this week made me think about how we process photographs. I picture the inside of my brain as a library card catalogue. Most images I encounter during the course of the day are swiftly filed away in the appropriate categories. Unclassifiable images like the ones in Evidence, however, create a strange delay: they seem to float in your head, stay with you longer.
But something is different now. My relationship to one of the images in the book has changed: a horse’s hoof being placed on a portable x-ray machine by a veterinarian. Not too long ago, I stood next to a vet during this procedure. It was an emotionally charged event—it was my horse. I now know too much about this scenario to appreciate the image for its other qualities. The sensation of encountering this newly familiar image is visceral and peculiar, a soap bubble bursting in front of my eyes.
I do not feel that I have gained something. Instead, I seem to have actually lost something.
MARCO BREUER is a German photographer and the inaugural recipient of this year’s Larry Sultan Photography Award. He is the author of Marco Breuer: Co*lor (Black Dog, 2015) and Early Recordings (Aperture, 2005).