Breath | Holding

Breath | Holding | my valentine to a much beloved teacher, mentor, friend

I wish I could say that when I arrived at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1980’s to attend graduate school, that I knew exactly who Larry Sultan was. But the truth is that I didn’t. This hardly seems plausible now, and my random good fortune at coming under his influence remains inexplicable.

How I ended up at the Art Institute has been one of the bigger mysteries in my life. After flunking out of college, I finally managed to finish a BS in psychology. Shortly before that, I had acquired a 35mm camera, which spelled the beginning of the end of my academic life. I had spent two years after graduation being utterly obsessed by and immersed in making photographs. And somewhere in that time I heard about the Art Institute and learned about its storied history, and eventually studying there became the emblem of my ambitions. In the spring of 1982 I quit my job in Illinois, moved to the Bay Area, and actually called the school from a downtown phone booth on Market Street to learn that I’d been accepted into their MFA program. If they hadn’t accepted me, I was determined to just keep applying until they let me in.

I arrived for school that fall as a utter blank canvas. I’d completed a total of three photography courses, hadn’t set foot in an art museum until I was almost 21 and could count my total visits on one hand, and had absolutely no concept of what I was getting myself into. Its outright embarassing in hindsight, my wide-eyed, clueless naivaté.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.Buddha Siddhartha Guatama

I remember exactly where I first met Larry. He was standing just outside the school café on a sunny August afternoon. He seemed much too soft-spoken and unassuming to be the mythic master I thought I was looking for. But those views began to change quickly when school started and I was assigned to his graduate critique seminar. Immediately, light bulbs started going off and doors started opening. The ground began to shift beneath my feet.

How to describe what I learned from this man? Larry gave voice to what, at the time, seemed inexpressible about the world of images. It was Larry who helped me understand the connection between the pictures we make and the stories that we tell ourselves about the world. And he gave me, through his example, a way to begin to talk about this so mysterious of passions. I listened very closely to everything he said, and I watched just as closely everything that he did. He was smart, curious, fearless, generous, and gentle. Larry came to embody everything that I wanted to accomplish in my own life as an artist and a teacher.

I think Larry understood what he meant to me in this regard. But I’m not sure he ever completely understood what I learned from him as a man. I say this because it was a lesson that was more complex, and it took me longer, many more years, to unravel.

When I arrived in California I was 25, a native Midwesterner whose father worked a factory job and whose mother never finished high school. What I had learned about families derived from two people who struggled with stability and addiction. What I had learned about manhood had come from a father very much steeped in the traditions of silence and violence.

The best teachers impart knowledge through sleight of hand, like a magician. – Kate Betts

I bring this up because it was Larry who, very slowly and generously, began to help me see how my own autobiography informed the photographs I was creating. He had an amazing ability to reach deep inside images, turn them inside out and upside down. He was very patient with me as I slowly came to see what must have seemed obvious to him. This conversation between us was, on the surface, about my work. But at a deeper level, Larry was also re-writing my ideas about what kind of a person, what kind of a man I could be in the world. Here was a man who felt deeply, spoke eloquently, and gained his own power by tenderly reflecting power back to those around him. This is perhaps the most enduring and precious gift I was given by my teacher and mentor, the person who eventually became my friend.

By the summer of 1984 I was trying to keep afloat in the ‘what now?’ limbo of post-graduation. That summer I received several invitations to Larry’s house on the boardwalk. I ate, for the first time – and learned how to cook – linguine with clams (remember, I was a Midwesterner: my idea of fresh seafood was frozen fish sticks).  Larry drove us up Mount Tamalpias one afternoon to eat prosciutto and melon beside a reservoir (another culinary first for me). And one morning I sat at his kitchen table while he called someone at the University of California Extension to convince them to give me an interview for a teaching position. That led to my first teaching job, which led to another, which led to another. It all started with that one phone call.

As the years went by I continued to see Larry, and he was always generous with his time. He hired me to teach a class at the California College of Art and we would have lunch or coffee from time to time. He had begun the Pictures from Home project when I was still in school, and our mutual interest in father-son relationships was a recurring source of conversation. Through Larry, I had also met and become friends with Jim Golberg (someone who has also deeply influenced me – but that’s another story), so that kept us in touch too. But by the late 1980’s I started to feel guilty about placing demands on his time – there were so many people that felt drawn into Larry’s orbit.

One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. – Friedrich Nietzsche

And then in 1991 I came back to Illinois to take a tenure-track teaching job.  The job became more demanding. I had children. The years went by.

On December 14, 2009 – a Monday – I sat down in my faculty office at lunchtime to eat, and spend a few minutes perusing the online New York Times, a daily ritual. That’s where I found the first of many obituaries that I would read and re-read over the ensuing days, months, and now years. In those first few days I culled the network for images of him, examples of his work, interviews with him. Anything, just to feel his presence, to hear his voice. Tucking things away, keeping them close.

One of the most enduring memories I have of Larry, there are so many, is an evening sitting in his kitchen on the Greenbrea Boardwalk – Larry lived in a house hoisted onto stilts and poised above the waters of the San Francisco Bay. Somehow we had gotten onto the subject of filing federal income tax forms, and Larry told me that each year he listed his profession as ‘diver’. I looked at him with more than a trace of confusion and asked why he would do that. His response was classic and I can still hear the words. He said, “Well, that’s how I understand what I do as an artist. I jump out of the boat into the water, and then try to swim straight down, as deep as I can go.” He paused, we both sat in silence for a moment or two, and then he continued. “You see,” he said, “the only thing I’ve really gotten better at over the years is learning how to hold my breath”.

I’ve told and re-told that stories many times over the years – to students, to friends, now to you, but mostly to myself. Its also become my operative metaphor, the way I understand my own process. And when I think of this, I hear his voice again, as if he were still here, present, right here on the deck of my own small boat afloat on this vast and uncharted sea. And as I prepare to dive over the side, into the unknown, I can hear him urging me forward.

Breath. Holding.

image credit: Stock Snap

words: © copyright Joseph Squier, 2019. No use without written permission. Contact: