By Bernard Cooper, Excerpt from Los Angeles Magazine, March 2002
Sex and work aren’t words you’d use in the same sentence unless you were talking about bad sex or an affair at the office, but they are words that best describe Larry Sultan’s recent photographs of porn shoots in and around the San Fernando Valley. Title The Valley, Sultan’s ongoing series conveys an unexpectedly workaday aspect of eroticism. Most of the 25 photos were taken on the sets of Thomas Paine Production, whose roster of stage names – Savage, Swift, Everhard – reads like a synopsis of the Kama Sutra, and whose product is a mythical world where every nightstand has a sex toy and every woman and man is willing. Great sex may be described by those who have it as pure bliss, but apparently, for those who’ve made a career out of having, or simulating it, the process is more laborious than blissful.
In Tasha’s Third Film (1998), energetic copulation is juxtaposed against a scene of dreamy boredom. Although most of the prints from The Valley are untitled, this one telegraphs a concise biography of the woman at its center. Hair in curlers, eyeliner applied, young Tasha sits on a living room sofa and gazes into Sultan’s camera with self-assurance while another actor and an assistant sprawl in chairs on either side of her, sound sleep; she’s still fresh to the business, undaunted by the possibility that having sex on cue can, like any job, become drudgery. Through the sliding-glass doors behind her one can make out the shape of a man in the backyard holding a light meter up to a tangle of naked bodies. A kneeling cameraman materializes out of the hazy sunlight, as do a couple watching impassively from the sidelines. Compressed into this instant is a range of people’s reactions to not only their jobs but the act of sex itself, from hopefulness to utter indifference.
Tasha’s Third Film is among the series’ few photographs in which people are actually doing the deed. Often Sultan’s imagery is a record of coitus interruptus, the thrusting and naughty talk put on hold while the director confers with the nude stars. During these lulls the actors are caught between abandon and self-consciousness, between porn persona and working person. Sultan has a knack for capturing these men and women at a moment when their amorphous state of mind is contradicted by their solid, camera-ready flesh. Male actors must remain aroused during downtime (pun intended), a responsibility that, in the case of Hershel Savage in Film Set #9 (1998-99), causes him to clutch at himself with glum determination. The drive for sexual gratification may be the animating force behind these photographs, behind the very industry they document, yet in many of Sultan’s pictures the big, definitive orgasm seems about as likely as the arrival of Godot.
Sultan stands back from the action in several prints, employing an authorial distance. From this vantage point sex becomes inexplicit, little more than a blurry commotion in the background. At times it’s hard to tell the gender, or number, of people having sex, not to mention what specifically they’re doing to each other. The photographer has kept himself at arm’s length not out of coyness or detachment but as a way of establishing that sex is only one aspect of the world he’s documenting. It’s a world that doesn’t require our presence except as consumers; we’ve entered a tacit (and voyeuristic) agreement to look at these people but not interact, to gaze across a divide that both protects and segregates the observer and the observed. Distance tinges Sultan’s art with melancholy.
Among The Valley’s most arresting photographs, Boxers – Mission Hills (2000) contains only a few hints that the subject matter has anything to do with adult films. A woman strides through a suburban backyard in a side-slit dress and precipitously high heels, a camera tripod visible in the foreground. She’s oblivious of the three muscular boxers prostrate at her feet, their hindquarters arched, a stance worshipful even for a species devoted as dogs. The boxers appear to be engaged in what zoologists call lordosis, the genital display by which female mammals encourage mating. They are also in “play posture,” a position dogs assume when they want to wrestle or chase a ball. The scene is teeming with primal signals, though a practical explanation for the boxers’ behavior is that they are diving for a treat their mistress (whom porn aficionados might recognize as actress Rebecca Lord) has tossed them while on her way to do another take.
There is a perfectly calibrated ambiguity to Sultan’s work that opens it up to narrative speculation. Carnal plots and subplots nag at the viewer, even when no one in the photo is naked or having sex. In fact, many photos from The Valley focus on mundane activities: A fully clothed actress sits in a kitchen chair and stares into space; crew members adjust the lights on a dim soundstage. In the context of the series, however, these images stir the imagination to prurience. Does the porn star daydream about lubricants or grocery lists? Do crew members find themselves excited while filming, or is disinterest in sex an occupational hazard?
Sultan’s pictures aren’t overly erotic, yet they contain a libidinal charge, however oblique. If sex is a central part of our experience, the photographer seems to say, it is also ubiquitous, diffuse, a frame of mind in which all people and objects can awaken in us a vague, offhand longing.
ASX CHANNEL: LARRY SULTAN
(All rights reserved. Text @ Bernard Cooper, Images @ Larry Sultan Estate)