Unpopular Mechanics

Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel: Evidence edited by Larry Sultan, Mike Mandel. D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers. Hardcover, 92 pages. $40.

The cover of Larry Sultan & Mike Mandel: Evidence

Children's picture books are often our first acquaintance with storytelling. In a board book devoted, say, to trucks, what appears to an adult to be a series of discrete images will, for a preverbal child, provide a narrative: Embedded in the facing images of a pickup and a monster truck is likely a tale of growth and diminishment, or maybe simplification and elaboration. Of course, this is a rough surmise; we can't be sure exactly what's going on inside the kid's head. But we can assume a basic human impulse to look for order and imbue it with meaning. In 1977, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, both recent photography graduates of the San Francisco Art Institute, published a project that might test this assumption. The artists assembled a volume of fifty photographs plucked from myriad government and private archives and published it as a limited edition titled Evidence. While the book figures significantly in the populous domain that includes, for example, Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, John Baldessari, and Sherrie Levine, its out-of-print status meant it was more talked about than read. This reprint provides a timely reminder of its place not only in the history of contemporary photography but also in the development of appropriation art.

The corpus of images that Mandel and Sultan collected was in one sense random but in another not so. A good number of the dozens of institutions that permitted them access to their files were located in California, many in what would become Silicon Valley: police and fire departments, the United States Forest Service and United States Geological Survey, the Army Corps of Engineers—all rich repositories. They also visited tech-oriented corporations and educational institutions including Itek, Lockheed, Stanford's W. W. Hansen Laboratory of Physics, and United Technologies. Indeed, the list overall is a roll call for constituents of the postwar technocracy. It's no surprise, then, that for viewers who came of age in that era, the white shirts, skinny ties, dials, wires, and detonations will be quite familiar from weekly readers in school, Life and Look magazines, and the pages of Popular Mechanics. (Born in 1946 and 1950, respectively, Sultan and Mandel grew up in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, California.) But even as these photos serviceably record the moment between the clank of World War II machinery and the sibilant hum of digital technology, they also, individually and in aggregate, tilt strongly against that documentary role.

In the early '70s, both collaborators were pressing at the boundaries between conceptual art and photography: Mandel published Myself: Timed Exposures, a collection of ad hoc self-portraits taken in various incongruous locales; the underwater photos that comprised Sultan's series "The Swimmers" defamiliarized the ubiquitous SoCal swimming pool by featuring partial, distorted, and consequently otherworldly bodies. Both artists had come under the influence of photography guru Minor White, an advocate of indeterminacy, as well as imbibing the general atmosphere of appropriation and repurposing created by fellow Californians such as Ed Ruscha, Jess, and Bruce Conner. Their first collaborative book, as described in this volume's essay by Sandra S. Phillips, contained "drawings and rather lowbrow photographic illustrations lifted from cheap ads or instructional manuals, the sort found on the back of comic books." The leap from these sources to the archives of, for instance, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power or the National Semiconductor Corporation, is a big one in terms of social imprimatur. But for Sultan and Mandel these were simply other—albeit more organized—troves that could be subject to the same techniques of selection, juxtaposition, and sequence.

Appropriated archival photograph from Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, 1977.
Appropriated archival photograph from Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, 1977.

Just a few years before Evidence's publication, Michael Lesy employed precisely those methods to pioneer the photographer's role as a curator of extant images with his 1973 book, Wisconsin Death Trip. Lesy drew mostly from a single turn-of-the-nineteenth-century photographer as his source and included contemporaneous newspaper accounts to provide context for his grim portrait of midwestern rural life. The intensity of the visual focus on this terrain and its people generated enormous emotional power—Lesy's volume is a landmark work of artfully rendered historical narrative. In contrast, Sultan and Mandel's project aimed to tell an allusive, darkly comic story, one that resembles experimental fiction (think Donald Barthelme) more than any documentary effort.

Evidence's first photo—bare footprints striding across the page, as if into the book—seems perhaps too obvious as an introduction. Yet upon closer inspection, it's apparent that one set of footprints is reversed, and both sets are too widely spaced to be attributed to a person's natural gait, thus raising some questions: How did these footprints come to be? Are they an effort to dissemble? The mystery deepens when we notice a pencil placed strategically parallel to one of the prints. While the image recalls those taken at archaeological digs that show some primitive paw mark with a pencil used to denote scale, it also suggests fraud or, at the very least, the uncertainty of not only measurement but of knowing just what's being measured. The next two pages—a bas-relief-style cast of a hand accompanied by what seems like a ruler, and a washed-out group portrait set on a dirty, ergonomically designed Eames chair—may extend this theme of how a body fits in the world, but do so elliptically.

Sultan and Mandel quite purposefully eschewed captions. We're on our own in guessing what that metal connector-type device is doing strewn, as it appears, in a desert landscape. And since none of the photos is credited to its source, it can't be known if, for instance, that photo of those footprints emerged from the files of the Medical Illustration Department at the University of California, Davis, or the Federal Power Commission. That lack of provenance amplifies the enigmatic quality of individual images as well as the rich ambiguities between them. The rather banal photo of an arm with a gloved hand holding a looped length of rope could be the demonstration of a rescue technique if drawn from the Burbank Fire Department; yet if we thought it had been culled from the Bureau of Prisons, it might look more like a noose. The image's relation to the corpus of sources, and to the other images (the rope photo is followed by a picture of a large, vaguely mammalian foam-like entity nonchalantly stored in what could be a laboratory), activates a sense of indeterminacy and suggests a provocative array of possibilities and potential connections.

What betrays the photos' origins in corporate and governmental file cabinets is their shared artlessness. They were taken for documentary purposes by employees of the various agencies and offices enumerated in the book's first pages; they are, in a very real sense, work product. Their bland functionality, though, is itself a source of intrigue. A disquieting apprehension attends Sultan and Mandel's choices, as if each image were an outtake from just before or just after some exciting tale's climax. For instance, a man in office attire is seen at the bottom of a deep concrete shaft; he's making his way across a pile of rubble carrying a large box. Are we witnessing the aftermath of a collapse or the outset of construction? What is the well-dressed man there to do? And what is in his box—much bigger than a briefcase but not big enough for construction tools? The levels of improbability and strangeness are high enough to pique curiosity but hardly reach Diane Arbus territory. In all likelihood, the man is an engineer, his box contains some kind of measuring equipment, and the purpose of the photo was to document the state of the rubble for some white-shirted fellow higher up in the food chain.

There are many such photos here: Another image presents a similarly dressed man wearing knee-high boots and standing in a tunnel in ankle-deep water. He's there, we can again guess, to testify to the depth of water. These workplace photos were, after all, evidence. They were part of a process of analysis, assessment, or remedy. In this sense, they depict the very essence of the postwar technocracy's approach to remaking the world. While Sultan and Mandel's assemblage tells this story, it also critiques—and even undermines—the assumptions and certainties that undergirded that era's exuberant confidence in the scientific method and in technological advancement. The figures (mostly men, often viewed only partially or from a distance) that contend with a world of experiments and devices, from wires and pulleys to hard hats and explosions, are not merely anonymous but appear as appendages to the stuff they calibrate and manipulate. One pair of photos in particular epitomizes this unsettling relationship: In the first, the head of a deceased and weirdly hirsute man is being pushed by a gloved hand into some kind of leather bag. This image is followed by a photo of an outstretched arm, a wristwatch in prominent view, holding a ruler in place, its angle ascendant. The visual mirroring—two living hands, one concealing the dead, the other carefully planning some future ascent—catalyzes a library's worth of Faustian brooding on the deployment of knowledge in the battle against mortality. By skillfully arranging scenes drawn from the bureaucratic periphery of the Cold War period, Sultan and Mandel conjure the spectacle of the mundane as well as the percolating dread that infused that time. Our current moment isn't dissimilar, and Evidence encourages us to close-read its pages, so as to discover its many unnerving and pertinent provocations.

Albert Mobilio’s book of short fiction Games and Stunts was recently published by Black Square Editions.