A couple of years ago, the man who introduced me to Jesus was sentenced to six months in federal prison. This hardly came as a surprise. When you grow up in the suburbs, you come to expect that a shadowy Lynchian underworld lurks below the sunny façade, that every resident of your town possesses an inner Jekyll, a Janus twin. The faithful husband collects porn in his closet. The prom queen is hiding the scars on her arm. But the fact that these clichés were immortalized in such movies as Blue Velvet (1986) and American Beauty (1999) did little to lessen their power over me as a kid. If anything, it seemed to confirm my suspicion that something malevolent was afoot, that a corpse would be found in a neighbor’s backyard, that a sibling might enlist in Heaven’s Gate.

John Cheever and John Updike drilled this terrain to its hardpan, against which the likes of Rick Moody and Jon Franzen still clink their shovels. Emphasizing the devastating effects of conformity and ennui, these authors borrowed heavily from the Frankfurt School, which argued that a physical cul-de-sac would breed an existential one. And yet these denunciations offer little education to someone who actually grew up there, amid the cologne of freshly mown lawns and the shick, shick of mechanized sprinklers.

After living in cities for more than a decade now, it is strange for me to report that I miss the suburbs. I miss the carnivorous whiff of a Weber grill and the sibilance of a push-broom against the pavement. I miss the drone of distant lawnmowers and the special urgency of back-to-school commerce. Of course, this kind of nostalgia wears an obvious scarlet letter. Underwritten by redlining and other prejudicial zoning laws, the suburbs have always been a vexed utopia, a haven for people who could afford to flee the deprivations of the city. If you ventured there as a kid—for a field trip or a sports tournament, say—anxious parents would admonish you in somber tones to carry your wallet in your front pocket, to always travel in packs. Such “life lessons” seemed to suggest that the city was a Stygian nightmare, a wasteland of rampant muggings and nomadic perverts. For these reasons suburban extraction usually carries a heavy burden of guilt and can perhaps explain why a lot of my friends point reflexively to the nearest urban center whenever someone asks where they’re from. “Milwaukee,” they say. “Detroit.” It is an attempt to elude the shame of their beginnings.

One never really senses this stew of political remorse and personal wistfulness in The Corrections (2001) or American Beauty. But it was precisely this ravel of sentiment that overcame me when I attended the Larry Sultan retrospective last December at the Milwaukee Art Museum. From the late 1970s to his death in 2009, the California-based art photographer had been reckoning with his upbringing in the San Fernando Valley, where he was sired by a stay-at-home mom and an executive for the Schick Razor Corporation. In the 1940s, his parents joined the exodus of Jewish immigrants who left Brooklyn for California, enchanted by the myth of the West as a land of endless opportunity, a Shangri-La of rambling lawns and two-car garages, swimming pools and evening highballs.

Sultan was interested in the metonymies of the American dream: cosmetics and cigarette ads, groomed lawns and fast-food combo plates.

If great art begins with an act of mutiny, Sultan’s took the form of adolescent revolt. Growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, he lived in a suburban development where residents chased tinsel-town approximations of the good life. He responded with slouch and defiance, leaving his parents’ bungalow, first for a political science degree at UCSB, and then absconding to the Bay Area to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. But the art world he encountered there was bohemian and quaint, still clinging to the gusty passions of the Beat generation. Sultan, by contrast, was interested in the metonymies of the American dream: cosmetics and cigarette ads, groomed lawns and fast-food combo plates. He eventually found artistic kinship with a fellow grad student named Mike Mandel, another kid from the burbs, and together they sought to pull back the curtain on pleasantville and interrogate the diktats of consumer culture.

In the early 1970s, Sultan and Mandel constructed a sequence of commercial billboards, which had been donated to them by a couple of local marketing firms looking to rehabilitate their public image during a moment of widespread anti-billboard sentiment. By giving ad space to two local artists, the marketing firms hoped to quell the hue and cry of Californians who thought the roadside monstrosities were marring the West Coast’s picturesque landscape. But the installments Sultan and Mandel created were a parade of caustic satire. On one in Boulder, Colorado, they painted a nuclear mushroom cloud bracketed with the incongruous phrase, “Ooh la la!” A few years later, Bay Area residents glimpsed a sign that read Whose News? Abuses You, an unambiguous indictment of corporate media. The project reached a fever pitch of overstatement in 1985 with another San Francisco billboard, this one emblazoned with images of bedraggled smokers accompanied by a caption that read We Make You Us.

We Make You Us (1985) / Courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate and Mike Mandel

While these sorts of public interventions were unique at the time—a prelude to the earthwork sculptures of Robert Smithson and the sardonic street murals of Banksy—it’s hard not to see in these excoriations of consumer culture a spirit of boyish contempt. However visually striking, the billboards feel jejune and didactic, the work of youngsters newly enlightened to the fact that the cozy suburbs of their childhood were predicated upon a lie. But if Sultan’s interests ended here, with these morose fulminations, his work would have no use for me, a thirty-year-old man trying to understand his conflicted feelings toward his suburban homeland.

• • •

One night in 1982, Sultan was visiting his parents, and instead of renting a film, as was their custom, the three of them decided to unearth a box of old home movies that had been cobwebbed with years of disregard. Sultan was astounded by the tapes. What flickered across the darkened living room weren’t merely random clips of backyard barbeques, kids’ birthday parties, or trips to Disneyland. Instead, they watched what Sultan would later describe as “thirty years of folktales—epic celebrations of the family.” Not his family per se, but the institution itself. “They were remarkable, more like a record of hopes and fantasies than of actual events,” he writes. “It was as if my parents had projected their dreams into emulsion. I was in my mid-thirties and longing for the intimacy, security, and comfort that I associated with home. But whose home? Which version of the family?”

Pictures from Home, a project undertaken from 1982 to 1992, walks a tightrope of sociological inquiry and memoiristic saga, mingling film stills from the home movies with more recent photos of his parents in their Palm Springs retirement community. Aesthetically, Sultan had taken a cue from the Canadian art photographer Jeff Wall, who made radiant large-scale pictures modeled after the Modernist painters in an attempt to liberate the photographic medium from its status as a trace and elevate it instead to the echelon of representation. Politically, the photos were a punch to the jawline of the Moral Majority, a cohort of evangelical leaders and conservative think tanks who’d begun to use the family as an ideological tool in electoral contests. “The family they were talking about,” Sultan said, “was quite oppressive and I felt that the family was one of the most complicated, unnerving institutions, and yet it is the last institution anyone, I think, believes in.” But despite his ambitions to denigrate neoliberal policy, Sultan ended up producing a more personal—ultimately more profound—body of work.

Sultan choreographed these scenes, but they typify his parents’ quotidian events. One photo depicts the exterior of the family bungalow at some non-hour of mid-afternoon, with an eyeblue sky looming in the background and a doily of tree-shade spread across the lawn. In the foreground, sprinklers emit languid helixes of water, lending the house the atmosphere of some glinting Arcadia. Another photo shows his seventy-something mother reclining in a deckchair. Her makeup is dense and Baby-Jane garish, and with her head canted toward the sky, the scene attains a prayerful quality. In Business Page, we see the Sultan patriarch sitting in a chair with a newspaper tented over his face, a subtle allusion to Cezanne’s withering portrait of his own father.

Mom in Curtain (1991) / Courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate

If all photos are about death, as Roland Barthes contends in Camera Lucida (1980), then Pictures from Home functions as a peculiar act of eulogy. Not only do they memorialize the theatricality of the American family, they also lament his parents’ dutiful commitment to their chosen roles—mother as doting housewife, father as starchy breadwinner. It is one thing to bemoan the influence of consumer culture with the frosty gaze of an anthropologist. It’s quite another to locate the symptoms of this influence in your parents, to recognize that the life they’ve built for themselves bears the tokens of various American myths. After all, the mother who adopts the June Cleaver façade is still your mother. The father with his briefcase and his wordbank of corporate clichés is still your dad. Therein lies the profound sadness of suburbia. In photographing his parents, Sultan attempts to flutter the veil of these social roles, to reveal the human person beneath the hard rind of stereotype.

To a viewer of suburban pedigree, Sultan’s genius lies in his ability to isolate certain domestic tableaux so that they faithfully evoke scenes from your own childhood. Somehow Sultan is able to shrink the distance between studium and punctum, defying Barthes’ famous contention (also in Camera Lucida) that a photograph of his own mother—the Winter Garden Photo—can have no true poignancy for us, we who were strangers to this woman. Sultan flouts this subjectivity. There is community in conformity, he seems to suggest, kinship in the cookie-cutter state of mind.

At some point while shuffling through the exhibit, my wife found me standing in front of a wall-sized portrait of Sultan’s mother where I was frozen reverentially as though in the presence of a holy monument. Mom in Curtain depicts a woman trying to unravel herself from a drape, presumably after adjusting a lever on the window. The curtain is diaphanous and seasick green, and the mother, who wears a white flowing robe, is visible through the shroud, evoking a monarch trapped in its chrysalis. Like her suburban environment, what once was a layer of protection has become a net of captivity. How many times have I glimpsed my own mother ensnared in this gauzy tangle? How many times have I overheard her cursing as she tried to extricate herself from the brocade?

A similar pang of recognition occurred when I approached a staggering wall-sized photo of Sultan’s father entitled Practicing Golf Swing. There is a touching grace in the father’s posture as he winds up his club. His twiggy legs are bent together like those of a fawn balancing on an icy pond, and his head is angled in a regal attitude, as if ready to be minted on a coin. The carpet is plush and intensely green, recalling the densely napped turf of a mini-golf course. Sultan has curated the scene to juxtapose the natural world—glimpsed through yet another limpid curtain—with the artificial interior of the home. Several critics have read the photo as a dismissal of communal life and a retreat toward cloistered spaces, a visual corroboration of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

At what point is masquerade mistaken for reality? At what point does our unfeigned expression bear the mold of the mask we wear?

But this interpretation fails to acknowledge the extent to which the father is preparing for a social event, a game most often associated with casual business meetings. Unfettered from the stiff operations of the boardroom, the real deals and handshake arrangements take place on money-hued fairways, during the back nine. I know this only because my father was an avid and adept golfer, and since the game carried a business component, he often prepared for his tee-times with a kind of monastic devotion. In the penumbral light of the garage, he scraped away clods of mud from the bottoms of his cleats and used a special chamois cloth to polish his clubs to a high sheen, positioning them in a bulky Titleist bag with the meticulous care of a florist arranging a bouquet. And in the open pasture of our living room, he was often known to practice the choreography of his golf swing, sometimes for an hour at a time. Actually, he did this everywhere—in department stores, in line at the grocery store, in the backstage before my wedding.

The Greeks bifurcated their lives into two realms—the civic (polis) and the domestic (oikos). They believed that a private home, cordoned off from the gaze of others, should be committed to the exigencies of the body—eating and defecating, grooming and reproducing. The home was a place of preparation, a rehearsal space in which people could ready themselves for the amphitheater of public life. But Sultan’s photos reveal the dramaturgy that endures even behind closed doors. Because the rituals of self-construction are observed by our loved ones, they too become a performance, an everyday matinee of private yearnings. The father sees himself practicing his putt. The son sees his father longing for approval.

Sultan’s parents, it should be acknowledged, were not simpletons. Far from hapless stage props, they were keenly aware of their son’s artistic project and sometimes even adamantly challenged its rarefied thematic content. His father took particular issue with a photograph called Thanksgiving, which shows Sultan’s mother standing at a kitchen window and presenting an uncooked turkey. The scene is meant as an objective correlative to Thanksgivings gone by, and its raw pink exterior, embalmed with gobs of butter, serves to vivify his mother’s mortality. Afternoon shadows occlude her face, making her seem apparitional, a ghost. Sultan’s father protested the subtext of this photo, accusing his son of indulging in “stereotypes of how people age.” Sultan replied that in nearly every picture his father had taken of his mother, she “is posed like a model selling one thing or another.” This matrix of competing perceptions—between wife and mother, model and cook, domestic role and living woman—was precisely the intricate portrait of the suburbs that Sultan wanted to create. At what point is masquerade mistaken for reality? At what point does our unfeigned expression bear the mold of the mask we wear?

• • •

For the remainder of his career, the suburbs would be something of an idée fixe for Sultan. In 1998 Maxim magazine commissioned him to return to the San Fernando Valley of his youth to shoot what critic Rebecca Morse described as “a day in the life of a porn star.” In the decades since he grew up there, the Valley had been invaded by the adult-film industry, which saw the sleepy bedroom community as the perfect backdrop for a spectrum of porn tropes: delivery guys and smutty nannies, forlorn housewives and chiseled handymen. When Sultan arrived on set, he found himself less than a mile from his old high school. Residents of the Valley, he learned, would rent out their homes to porn studios for a few days at a time so long as the warm domestic interiors were left undisturbed while the actors screwed gymnastically. Sultan captured this odd enjambment. Smiling family photos hang on a far wall, observing a bout of fellatio. Between takes, a nude man hunches at the sink of an immaculate kitchen, his body washed in the Vermeer light of an open window.

Topanga Skyline Drive #1 (1999) / Courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate

Sultan was interested less in the sex acts themselves than in how these accoutrements of middle-class success collided with the motifs of desire. “While the film crew and talent are hard at work in the living room,” he wrote, “I wander through the house peering into the lives of people who live there. I feel like a forensic photographer searching out evidence.” Evidence of what, he doesn’t say. Philip Gefter, a colleague and close friend, proves to be a more eloquent spokesman of Sultan’s preoccupations: “The Valley is a serious meditation on an existential impulse (sex), in the context of late capitalism (money), animated by the artifices/edifices of the American dream (happiness).”

This troika of countervailing forces—desire, money, happiness—breeds a psychic flavor that feels unique to suburbia, one that over the course of his prolific career Sultan managed to document so convincingly. An unsettling nostalgia lurks in these images. Sultan seems to pine for a notion of home that no longer exists. Maybe, the photos seem to suggest, it never did.

But how can a person occupy a nowhere place, a mirage, a dream city? Again and again, Sultan returns to these enclaves of middle-class banality, revisiting the coordinates of his past, hunting for something authentic among the twinkling subdivisions and manicured parks, the strip malls and Saturday soccer games. As a native son, he straddles the border between contempt and compassion, decrying the odious social policies that have created such affluence while at the same time understanding the enticements of this idyll. How to capture this puncturing discord?

Sultan loiters at the edges of the suburb, observing its operations but unable to ever truly return.

In the summer of 2006, Sultan began driving around the fringes of the Valley where hordes of immigrants congregated near lumberyards in search of work. Implicating himself in the thorny economy of migrant labor, Sultan hired several men to pose in “the terrain of scruffy nature that lies between one suburban development and another.” Near a colony of townhomes, the men walk through a corridor of brunette shrubbery and withered prairie, carrying tinfoiled platters for a potluck dinner. Another photo shows two Latino men piloting a skiff through a lane of placid water. By presenting these men in interstitial zones, Sultan forces the viewer to confront two conflicting visions of American life—the hedonism of the suburbanite against the desperation of the immigrant. In these scenes we are reminded that the labor of immigrants has created the very suburbs from which they are so often excluded. On most days, they scrub toilets and pick avocadoes, clean pools and groom hedges, but here they are engaged in the pastimes of the leisured class, which conjures “the poignancy of displacement.” The series was called Homeland.

“Homeland,” of course, is a loaded term, one that carries connotations of both national security and political exile. Protect the homeland! cries the xenophobe along the Texas border. It’s impossible to return, mourns the shaken refugee. The life I had there is gone. Curiously, the one usage is an inversion of the other. For the citizen, “homeland” is a way of life that must be preserved and protected. For the exile, it is a way of life one can never get back.

Canal District, San Rafael (2006) / Courtesy of Larry Sultan Estate

In a sense, the displaced workers of Homeland can be seen to approximate Sultan’s own relationship to the suburbs, loitering at its edges and observing its operations, but unable to ever truly return. Forever he remains an interloper, an émigré in his native land. It’s a sentiment that calls to mind the “softer emigration” that James Wood discusses in his quiet, tenebrous essay “On Not Going Home.” Chronicling his own decades-long expatriation from England to the United States, Wood describes the voluntary condition of living apart from one’s birthplace as “secular homelessness”:

Most of us have to leave home, at least once; there is the need to leave, the difficulty of returning, and then, in later life as one’s parents begin to falter, the need to return again. Secular homelessness, not the singular extremity of the exile or the chosenness of biblical diaspora, might be the inevitable ordinary state.

By the end of his life, Sultan seemed to have understood this liminal condition with a kind of throbbing acuity, and it goes some way toward explaining my own ambivalence toward my suburban upbringing. Toward the end of the piece, Wood hazards a modest theory: “Perhaps to be in between two places, to be at home in neither, is the inevitable fallen state, almost as natural as being at home in one place.”

• • •

By the time we left the exhibit a prickly silence had overtaken the museum, a sense of things coming to an end. Near the exits blue-blazered docents yawned and made a show of checking their watches. It was a lazy hour on the day after Christmas, and as we braced ourselves for the December cold, we could see in the distance the snowy tundra of Lake Michigan, its edge frozen into a serrated cliff. Colored lights were strung up in the downtown shrubbery, lending our trip the festive quality of a dream.

We were heading to my mom’s house in the suburbs. Along the expressway, the long scroll of Milwaukee’s industrial history unspooled before us—a maze of stockyards and clapboard houses, a sector of factories veined with railroad tracks. Now, the city is known for beer and Teutonic kitsch, a reputation aided by the aroma of yeast hanging over the highway near the Miller Brewing plant.

We exited the freeway and whipped past a cascade of glowing signage: Barnes & Noble and Target, Subway and Famous Footwear. Vast swaths of prairie land had been cleared to make room for this blinking commerce, but it’s impossible for me to avoid becoming flushed with nostalgia whenever I drive this stretch of concrete, sensing among these titans of suburban retail the ghost of the kid who once lived here.

When we pulled up to Mom’s house, I could see through the mammoth picture window my brother and his kids roughhousing next to the tinseled Christmas tree. Mom greeted us at the door with swift puckered kisses, and my niece and nephew performed a vaudeville of cartwheels and sock-slides in an attempt to impress us. Before we could put down our bags, my niece was tugging on my pantcuff, begging me to make a snowman. The walls of the living room were smothered with family photos—scenes of baby baths, college graduations, and autumn weddings—and I was experiencing the eerie double consciousness that results from an encounter with artistic mastery. I was seeing this house as Sultan would see it, toggling between nostalgia and despair, a hologram of disquieting emotion.

Outside, clots of snow fell from the darkening sky, and my niece was lurid against the twilight. She wore a neon pink parka and matching snow pants, boots that resembled marshmallows. Together we built a frosty homunculus. It was three feet tall, with rocks for eyes and a woodchip mouth. It wore a rumpled trilby that Mom had dredged from the basement for expressly this purpose, and two arthritic-looking tree branches served as arms.

Standing in the snow-confected lawn of my mother’s suburban house, I felt myself pantomiming a family tradition, a crude approximation of a seasonal ritual. It was the same sense of forgery that I felt last October when my wife and I took our nieces and nephews to a local cider mill. The “farm” featured a corn maze, mangy goats that subsisted on dispenser pellets, and a hay-decorated farmhouse that sold fresh donuts and spiced lattes. It was an ersatz version of the real thing, a soundstage, an evocation of a pastoral American history that no longer exists. It was as real as the actual harvest as the whiff of pumpkin that emanates from a Yankee Candle.

In the yard my niece was trying to catch flurries on her tongue. Night had fallen, and as we lingered there in the spectral dark, I remembered a few stray lines from “The Snow Man,” the Wallace Stevens poem. One must have a mind of winter . . . and have been cold a long time . . . not to think of any misery in the sound of the wind. I looked across the yard, and in the warm saffron light of the kitchen window, Mom appeared, wraith-like through the glass, more like a memory of my mother than her actual person. She was standing at the sink and rinsing dishes, her head bowed in somber attitude.

In that moment I was lost somewhere between the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. It was the closest I could get to home, and it seemed achingly far.