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LOS ANGELES — In 1998, photographer Larry Sultan had a porn-again conversion. He was commissioned to shoot the making of an adult film for a magazine and the set, oddly enough, was a house in the San Fernando Valley suburbs.
“I walked through the garage,” recalls Sultan, on the phone from his studio in the San Francisco Bay area, “and found an ordinary house with a rather extraordinary scene taking place.”
A porn production company had rented the house from its owner, a dentist, and it had all the trappings of suburban, house-proud taste.
“What fascinated me was the banality of this oversize suburban home,” Sultan says, “and the transgressive quality of what happened when the owner left. I knew it was perfect for the kind of work I was interested in.”
This, Sultan realized, was the American dream home, but the owner had been dislodged by an unruly “family” of sex professionals and the domestic fantasy had been displaced by one of unbridled sexual adventure. Over the next five years, Sultan returned to the San Fernando suburbs — the Silicone Valley of America’s multibillion-dollar porn industry — to photograph the comings and goings of Monica Mayhem, Michael J. Cox, Red Heaven, Alexandra Silk, Lexington Steele, Taylor St. Claire, Holly Hollywood and other stars of the porn industry.
“I wasn’t interested in sex,” insists the photographer, who is married with two teenaged sons. “It actually took me a while to make pictures that weren’t overwhelmed by the pornography. I have a dislike of work that purports to be documentary but preys on the pleasure of naked bodies.”
His work is the subject of a new book, “The Valley,” and a traveling exhibit that will be seen in New York starting Sept. 8 at the Janet Borden Gallery. There’s plenty of nudity, of course, but often the actual sex is glimpsed from an oblique, phantom’s eye perspective: A threesome of limbs tangle at the edge of the wall-to-wall carpet. A naked man stares out a kitchen window. What is he thinking about? And how did he get those red scratches on his sweaty back?
“The Valley” explores a world many would find sordid. Even so, Sultan places himself squarely in the tradition of Northern California romanticists Minor White, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, all of whom attempted to convey the mysterious and the sublime through their pictures of the American West. The porn films he documents were all made in rented suburban houses and some of Sultan’s most moving photographs show no bodies at all. Instead, his camera scans interior vistas of carpeted staircases and vacant dining rooms. He finds accidental still lifes in a kitchen sink, or on the den floor, where a bottle of baby oil has been dropped next to a stack of schoolbooks.
Sultan’s porn-star subjects were initially unsure of what to make of such images. The usual role of a photographer on an adult film set is to snap close-ups of the actresses — called “pretty girl shots” — or to zoom in at the crucial moment.
“They call for the still photographer when there’s a pop shot,” Sultan explains, “and when I wouldn’t run up and grab my camera, the director would say, ‘What’s he doing?’”
But as the cast and crew came to understand Sultan’s project, they took pains to help it along. “When they figured out what I was interested in,” he recalls, “they would point out things like a dog barking or a piece of fabric in the backyard. Someone would say, ‘Call Larry!’”
Only one shot depicts actual sex, and it was among the last taken during the project. Sultan made it after realizing he’d been so leery of shooting sex that he had missed the purely sensual aspect of pornography.
Although the subject matter of “The Valley” doesn’t have a direct precedent in Sultan’s work, it continues themes from the 1977 book “Evidence,” long considered a landmark in conceptual art and newly reissued by DAP. For “Evidence,” Sultan and his collaborator, Mike Mandel, sifted through the vast archives of government agencies and technology corporations and culled 55 photographs that narrate a dark and sometimes hilarious attempt to control nature and build a brighter future.
“ ‘Evidence,’ is about the attempt to control and the loss of control,” says Sultan. “The family is the height of attempting to control nature, and yet we make a mess of it. In porn work, you find the control and security of family, but the hominess has been made uncanny. Something has been unloosened.”
Sultan’s next project will take him back to the suburbs, this time around San Francisco, to examine the changes caused by Mexican and South American immigrants in the manicured enclaves of white America.
“The overarching theme of my work is depicting how complicated suburban life has become,” Sultan said. “We project our dreams on suburban life, and we are constantly disappointed.”
— Kevin West