Larry Sultan's The Valley photographic series explores the middle-class homes of the San Fernando Valley — and the porn industry that rents these homes for use as film sets. Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Valley (in Van Nuys), Sultan has a unique view of this many-layered place. Scalo just published a book on the work that features some 90 full-color images.
To explore the true identity of what lies at the heart of the city that is called Los Angeles one has to head over the mountains to the San Fernando Valley. "The valley" is part of the city but out of view from what we call L.A. (places like Hollywood, Venice, Downtown, Beverly Hills or Silverlake) it is the bastard child of a place that is too obsessed with itself to notice. The valley has sort of preserved its innocence, maybe because it is out of sight to many and still is a projection screen for "the good life". In the 50's and 60's it was the proto-suburbia that offered white middle class families the chance to own a house and a backyard (maybe even a pool). It's these suburban homes that play the leading role in Larry Sultan's complex pictures. In the contemporary valley, these simple tract homes with wall to wall carpeting, two-car garage, popcorn ceilings and faux fireplaces play backdrop to the filming of the american porn industry that produces these films in sleeper communities like Chatsworth and generates a cash flow that is estimated to reach over $9 billion a year. Most of this behind perfectly manicured hedges and sliding glass doors. Thanks to the power of porn, men around the world have gotten a glimpse of this strange place without probably registering where the movie they were watching was actually shot. Thanks to the work of Sultan that we now have a better understanding of the architecture of the porn work environment.
The valley has been on Sultans mind for a long time. He started with the 1983 series "pictures from home" (below a photo of his mom and dad from the series), a very personal documentation of life in the valley that the artist himself calls a "weird place".
Somehow, the "weirdness" of it all hasn't let go of him and so he started the porn series about six years ago, even though "I was surprised that I would do something about sex" as he admits. And the pictures are proof that it wasn't in any way a voyeuristic streak that brought him close to a 100 times down from his home in San Francisco to these sets. There are seldom any sex acts documented and it seems Sultan is much more interested in the strange yet fascinating combination of these environments and the temporary guests that inhabit them. "I haven't found much narratives that touch me as much as this coupling of pleasure and mystery" Sultan explains.
But what about his relationship with the people in this industry, where everyone is considered a porn STAR? In the picture the people seldom come across as stars, they often show a vulnerability or casualness in a way we are not used to see them - considering that they are often nude or half naked. "Well, it leaves a rich area for interpretation" the artist reflects - "it is a very close knit community, almost like a circus family. The more I was on these sets, the more I felt a deep sense of generosity. The assistants of the film they were shooting were helping me with lighting a scene or producers would point out a setting that could be interesting for my work." And don't think getting the vulnerability of the protagonists on film was an easy task. "These actors are used to do "pretty girls" shoots, where posing is key. To understand that I didn't wanted glamorized shots of them took a big getting used to" explains Larry Sultan.
Sultan, who sometimes moonlights as a commercial photographer (he did the Kate Spade campaign that is currently shown at the "fashioning fiction" exhibition at the MoMA), has a great sense of composition, a true knack for colors and as you can see in his photographs again and again - a great sense of humor without being corny. Considering the subject, not an easy thing to acomplish. His "valley" series and the new book will definitely put him on the map next to the true visual storytellers such as Jeff Wall, Joel Sternfeld or Philip Lorca diCorcia. And it seems that he finally put the demons of his youth in Van Nuys behind him.
Text: Reto Caduff