Larry Sultan, The Valley

On a different note, the author also mentions Larry Sultan’s work, The Valley,which at first glance is simply a behind the scenes documentary of the porn industry. Both pornography and documentary rely on the viewer suspending disbelief and playing along with the notion that the subjects were unaware they were being filmed or that the whole scenario had not been staged or choreographed for the cameras. Sultan is using the documentary tradition to raise a number of questions, mostly concerning the production and consumption of those very images.

Sultan’s work is an analysis of how and where pornographic films come into being – since they are filmed in what Sultan calls ‘tract houses’ (housing estate, where all the houses are built to look the same) owned by professionals (dentists, attorneys, stockbrokers) who rent them out to the film producers. The juxtaposition of sleaze and bourgeois trappings is disconcerting. This is the kind of middle-class house Sultan grew up in; in fact, the series is named after the San Fernando Valley where his parents had their home, and all the images for the project were shot.

Seen as a wannabe Hollywood, the valley has become capital of the adult film industry; homes are rented out on a temporary basis by their owners, and thus “the Valley’s peculiar brand of social and class aspiration, as revealed by its domestic décor, finds its way into the cultural landscape of porn” (from Frieze magazine online). On his website, Sultan wrote: “I’m planted squarely in the terrain of my own ambivalence — that rich and fertile field that stretches out between fascination and repulsion, desire and loss. I’m home again.”

Although in many of the images the porn actors feature quite predominantly and it is clear what is happening, there are also instances where Sultan has shifted his camera to centre on the interior, and the proceedings are only just included in the frame. He is clearly questioning the seeming discrepancy between the order and cleanliness of the house and the tawdry or licentious nature of the films being shot: “While the film crew and talent are hard at work in the living room, I wander through the house peering into the lives of the people who live there. I feel like a forensic photographer searching out evidence.” This reminds me of Sophie Calle’s work where she posed as a chambermaid to gain access to people’s rooms and photograph the contents; an extremely voyeuristic invasion of privacy.

In other images, Sultan uses objects to obscure the sex acts (none of his images are pornographic themselves), in ironic imitation of erotic scenes in tawdry films that use similar ruses to hide the genitalia of the protagonists.

In more humorous moments, he shows the po-faced film crew looking on (presumably) as a sex act is performed for the cameras, or when one of the porn actors modestly covers his genitals with his hands:

The high quality images are in full colour and high resolution since Sultan is not revealing something considered deviant or marginal, but documenting a multi-million dollar industry that is creating entertainment products in the heart of America’s ‘decent’ middle-class territory.

Some of the most interesting shots are those where Sultan’s presence is acknowledged by the people he has photographed:

It is interesting to note that both pornography and documentary similarly rely on the apparent fallacy that the photographer was not there, or was unobserved – the fly on the wall myth that that both genres depend on for their ‘reality’ effect, their verisimilitude is thrown off kilter by these images. Sultan is using the documentary tradition to raise a number of questions, mostly concerning the production and consumption of those very images.

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