A Favorite Photograph
Larry Sultan: ‘Untitled, 1979’ from the Swimmers Series
By Julie Mihaly
I remember when much-loved and sorely missed friend, Larry Sultan, first showed me this photo from his 1979 “Swimmers Series.” It’s of a little redheaded girl in an infant swimming class, eyes wide open, under water, the fingers of her right hand spread as she looks toward her mother’s chest.
I believe I may have begun my commentary to Larry with an expletive, followed by, “I don’t think anyone has ever made an image that more perfectly sums up the human condition.” He laughed, and I explained to him then what I will tell you now. Forty years later I still believe this to be true.
First let me say that I think we all have some wacky, archetypical memory of water, whether from our time in primordial puddles or from the internal tides of the womb, we all know it first as a place of incomparable safety.
This little girl, who not so long ago, bobbed happily in utero, wears on her face the dazed wonder of experiencing an updated version of that element coupled with the unbridled terror that comes with realizing that this precious fluid is no longer compatible with the workings of her lungs. That shocking realization is written on her face.
And as if that weren’t enough, there before our little swimmer is the sumptuous roundness of her mother’s breast, the site of unequaled pleasure and cherished sustenance, suddenly made inaccessible by the unforgiving cup of a bathing suit bra.
What, I ask you, could possibly speak more about the ultimate contradictions with which we wrestle every day? What could possibly express with more humor, grace and honesty the fact that what we most love is what we most fear? What could express more sweetly or bluntly the fact that there will always be barriers between what we most desire and the satisfaction of those desires?
When I saw this photo I realized with dazzling certainty that I am that little girl. And she is still me. Even now, as I negotiate my 66th year, every new thing presents itself with both excitement and fear. Every desire demands some investigation and effort to be satisfied. What I, and that little girl in me, have learned is that more often than not, those lifelong demands are worth whatever they ask of us. And amazingly, they provide lessons, experience, and often joy along the way.
Larry sent me an 8” X 10” print of this image signed on the front with silver Magic Marker. The print has faded a bit, but the signature, Larry, his talent and my love for this photo still sparkle.
Julie Mihaly is a fine art photographer, writer, editor, and researcher. She’s also the creator/designer of, and frequent contributor to, BoomUnderground.com, an online magazine that features smart and humorous takes on what it is and was like to be a member of “the generation that shook the status quo.”