Ask the proverbial person on the street to name a famous painting, and chances are you’ll get an answer, whether it’s Andy’s “Marilyn” or Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.” Yet ask that person to name an important photograph, and silence is all you’ll receive.

What about work by the recently deceased Irving Penn or his sometime rival, Richard Avedon? Both men straddled magazines and museums, but neither can claim a signature image or has leapt indisputably into the popular imagination. (Diane Arbus and her black-and-white “Twins” have come close, but aren’t there yet.) Sure, some photos are iconic because of their content and what they have come to symbolize: raising a flag at Iwo Jima, for example, or that same Miss Monroe with her white pleated skirt blown up by a blast of subway air. But photos as art, and photographers as artists, are a much harder sell.

Photographer and teacher Larry Sultan died in December at age 63, and although a few newspaper obituaries surfaced — obits themselves are a melancholy measure of fame — Sultan should be a lot better known. A bit of artistic irony is at play here, because the “accidental,” anti-masterpiece nature of his best work, which has acted to muffle his renown, may ultimately guarantee it.

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Jeff Weinstein
Obit

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