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The Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, is a hall of wonders exhibiting scientific contraptions that demonstrate how tornadoes, waves and other natural phenomena are formed.
It proved to be a fitting locale for Monday night’s memorial service for Larry Sultan, the influential photographer who died in December at age 63 shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. Sultan was remembered by the overflow crowd of more than 500 as an artist, teacher, friend and father with a roving mind, a generous spirit — and an untiring sense of wonder.
Novelist and philanthropist Robert Mailer Anderson opened the service by singing a cappella from Tom Waits’ song “Anywhere I Lay My Head.”
Anderson then took a long slug off a bottle of Old Crow whiskey that he said had been bottled in 1946, the year of Sultan’s birth. He recalled having lunch with Sultan in the summer at the Chateau Marmont where their conversation, lubricated by “a midday transgressive drink among the starlets,” ranged from Sultan’s new body of work — of day laborers working in the East Bay — to the core personal questions that constantly preoccupied Sultan’s mind: “How to be a good son, a good father, a good husband and…an uncompromising artist.”
Other eulogies were delivered by Stephen Beal, the president of the California College of the Arts, where Sultan taught for more than 20 years; Sultan’s CCA colleague Linda Fleming, and Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Several of Sultan’s photographs are on view at the museum’s 75th anniversary show, including selections from his milestone 1977 book “Evidence,” and a nearly life-size portrait of Nob Hill socialite Denise Hale, shot for a story that ran in W magazine in 2007.)
“The evening took on a life of its own,” said Sultan’s widow, Kelly, afterward. “All the speakers were such a reflection of Larry.”
But the finest words of the evening, however, were written by Sultan himself and were taken from the remarkable series of e-mails he sent to close friends in his final months, some of which were read at the memorial. The last was sent after Sultan had decided to forgo further hospitalization in order to remain at his home overlooking a bird sanctuary in Marin County. There, he wrote, he would be surrounded by “sleeping kids and wrestling dogs,” family, friends and prints of his most recent work. The subject line of Sultan’s final message spoke volumes to those who knew him.
It read: “Lucky Guy.”