The Valley: A Summary

Thanks to all who have contributed to the discussion on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’. We have compiled an archive of the posts below for future reference and will also be listed under the reading list page.

Larry Sultan: Video Obituary
Synopsis: Larry Sultan, The Valley
Images from ‘The Valley’
VIDEO: Full book video
‘Nature is Strange in the Valley’ Essay by Larry Sultan
Erik Saeter Jorgenson – The Valley is my favourite photobook

Chris Timothy on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’
Larry Sultan – Katherine Avenue
Larry Sultan interview with Terri Whitlock
Out of Sorts in ‘The Valley’ – Matt Johnston
The Valley – Exhibition Catalogue

July’s book is ‘Cafe Lehmitz’ by Anders Petersen. If you would like to contribute to the discussion, just let us know on mail@photobookclub.org

The Valley – Exhibition Catalogue

A great resource for those interested in the original words that accompanied ‘The Valley’ as it was first exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The interview with Terri Whitlock which was included in the catalogue will be posted separately.

Text owned by SFMoMA and Larry Sultan, found via The Traditional Fine Arts Association
Images added for illustration, ©LARRY SULTAN



The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presents Larry Sultan: The Valley, an exhibition of photographs by Bay Area artist Larry Sultan that looks at the transformation of middle-class suburban homes into stage sets for adult films.
Organized by SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography Sandra S. Phillips, the exhibition will be on view May 8 through August 1, 2004. A fully illustrated catalogue of the series The Valley will be produced by Scalo Press to coincide with the exhibition.

Featuring fifty-three large-scale, color photographs taken since 1999, The Valley engages many of the themes found in Sultan’s earlier project, Pictures from Home, which was, in part, a photographic investigation into the meaning of home and family. Along these lines, The Valley examines why the ideal of middle-class domesticity lends itself to a most curious form of appropriation-use as a setting for pornographic films. The project also questions the notion of photographic truth, a popular subject of inquiry for contemporary artists.

On recent excursions to the San Fernando Valley, Sultan noticed that ordinary houses in the vicinity were being rented for a few days at a time to be used as sets for adult films. Fascinated by this practice, Sultan undertook his current work not as a meditation on the morality or a sociology of pornography, but as an investigation into what home, work, domesticity, and suburbia mean when used as charged, symbolic backdrops for adult films. Sultan’s complex photographs negotiate the boundary between fiction and truth-they take advantage of the seductive cinematic lighting, yet they also divulge the frayed edges of the set and the boredom behind theatrical personas. In Suburban Street in Studio, a familiar looking street of suburban homes is revealed to be nothing more than a painted stage set. In West Valley #11, Sultan focuses on an exterior wall with a grid of small openings, one of which offers a revealing peek at a reclining woman within.

This ordinary scene, complete with the clutter of a roll of paper towels and a gallon jug of liquid, is dominated by a rich, golden light, adding an air of mystery to the photograph. In Sharon Wild, Sultan captures an actress in a moment of repose between takes. Sultan’s contemplative portraits reveal the working actors behind the film characters in honest off-screen moments of hunger, ennui or fatigue.

Phillips says, “Larry Sultan’s new work is visually stunning. Although nominally about the industry of adult sexual fantasy, the true subject of Sultan’s pictures is how photography is used in the construction of that fantasy-and how it can also function as a critical tool to dismantle those same illusions. Sultan is a leading figure in the Bay Area art community, both as an artist and as a teacher, and we are proud to present his thoughtful work at SFMOMA again.”

Raised in the San Fernando Valley, Larry Sultan studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, and though he has made Northern California his home, his work has consistently engaged the culture of Southern California. His first major work was a collaborative project with artist Mike Mandel, a book of appropriated photographs, Evidence, and a subsequent exhibition organized by SFMOMA in 1977. These pictures came from the files of government agencies, local corporations, and research institutions and, assembled in the narrative format of a book, produced a witty, provocative, and insightful look at contemporary American culture. In 1992 Sultan compiled the book and accompanying exhibition Pictures from Home, which approaches the meaning of family and home through the artist’s own photographs, extensive diaristic writing, family artifacts, and stills from his parents’ home movies. Like The Valley, the photos in Pictures from Home engage ideas of truth, fantasy, and artifice.

In conjunction with Larry Sultan: The Valley, SFMOMA’s Education Department will present Staging Domesticity: The Making of Fiction, on Friday, May 28, 2004 at noon in the Koret Visitor Education Center Lecture Room. In this slide presentation and gallery tour, Terri Whitlock, a curatorial associate in SFMOMA’s photography department, will discuss Sultan’s exploration of the artifice of photography and the construction of middle-class suburban identity.

In addition, an Artist’s Talk with Larry Sultan will be presented on Saturday, June 5, at 2 p.m. in the Wattis Theater, followed by a book signing in the MuseumStore at 3:30. Sultan will be signing copies of Larry Sultan: The Valley, available in hardcover.

Introductory text to the catalogue

Larry Sultan’s most recent body of photographs, The Valley, examines the adult film industry’s use of middle-class houses as stage sets. Sultan first gained access to these sets through an editorial assignment in 1999 and became intrigued by the idea of staging erotic fantasies in such banal circumstances. He does not focus on the sex acts themselves, but instead frames his photographs to include the surrounding architecture and the off-camera activities of the actors and crew.

Sultan lives and works in the Bay Area, but he was raised in the San Fernando Valley in a suburban tract home much like those pictured here. His last major project, Pictures from Home, took his own family as its subject and explored photography’s role in creating a familial mythology. In this new series, Sultan turns to broader questions of domesticity. Glamorous stage lighting cannot conceal the almost unbearable ordinariness of these homes, with their knick-knacks and big-screen TVs, fine-art prints and dining room sets. His pictures beg the question: What is it about these houses and their middle-class decor that makes them suitable settings for projected sexual fantasies?

Although they are nominally about adult films, Sultan’s pictures are also interrogations of the photographic medium itself. He shows how photography can create the illusion of fantasy, and then he uses his pictures to dismantle those same fictions. Lush backyards are exposed as mere painted backdrops; even the beautiful, sexually uninhibited porn stars seem less exotic and more familiar when seen between takes, waiting for makeup or instructions from the director-especially when Sultan catches the actors in moments of contemplation, boredom, and fatigue.

By showing us the places where illusion falls apart, Sultan also calls our attention to the act of looking. A reflection on a sliding glass door, a sofa standing between us and the actors, or a strategically placed vase are all reminders of our status as onlookers, or interlopers. In some cases these obstacles almost completely obscure the scene. Unlike pornography, which is designed to be immediate and uncomplicated, Sultan’s images are complex. Sometimes humorous, sometimes erotic, they reward close examination.
Corey Keller, Assistant Curator of Photography, SFMOMA

Artist Statement

The cast and crew have gathered in the front yard of a ranch-style house, a few blocks from where I went to high school in the San Fernando Valley. Women in six-inch heels sink into the lawn; men push around camera equipment, anxious about losing the light. They are preparing to film a scene in which four blond housewives in a convertible are pursued and overtaken by two men in an appliance-repair van. In the golden afternoon light the neighbors have come out to water their lawns and witness the scene.

It is common for adult-film companies to shoot in tract houses — the homes of dentists and attorneys and day traders whose family photographs can be seen in the background, and whose decorating tastes give the films their particular look. It’s as if one family went on vacation for a few days, leaving everything in the house intact, and another family, an odd assembly of unrelated adults, has temporarily taken up residence. 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.

In these films, lazy afternoons are interrupted not by noisy children but by the uncontrollable desires of delivery boys, baby sitters, coeds and cops. They crowd in the master bedrooms and spill out onto the patios and into the pools that look just like our neighbors’ pools, like our pool. And by photographing this 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.

Out of Sorts in ‘The Valley’

To me, There is something out of sorts about the scenes in Larry 
Sultan’s ‘The Valley’. And it is not the naked house guests or their crew 
members that are lighting, filming, resting, and sweating around the 
porn scenes.

Instead it is the homes and artifacts within them that seem out of 
place. The choice of art hanging on the wall and furnishings dressing 
the home all come under a new scrutiny when juxtaposed with the
 writhing bodies of many fantasies now occupying ‘family spaces’. I wonder, like Sultan, whether the 
real fantasy taking place here is that of the perfect American home.

 Each one we enter has a similar, slightly sterile feel. We see the
 pools, gazebos, patios, large sofas and TV’s that appear on the
 quintessential ‘dream home checklist’ but not much else.
The addition of fictitious backdrops in gardens and living rooms creates a feeling that the each house is just part of an elaborate set for the filming of real-life.

The
 personality Sultan does show us of these homes seems tired, the girls 
bedroom with neglected dolls now sitting on a shelf, a drum kit
 gathering dust and a bed with no sheets that has certainly seen better
days. It is these rooms, kept out of view of the directors camera but picked up by Sultan’s that offer a melancholy feel to the viewing experience of the book. It reminds us of all the dreams and items once cherished as well as that which would be deemed unpleasant to others that are now gathering dust, or else pushed aside from the gaze of any possible visitors in so many homes.

These are not the locations chosen by the director, and neither are
they chosen to be displayed by the home owner. Both the director and
home owner want to show the same thing, a representation of success,
and of a fantasy, but without any personal effects or clutter that
would tarnish the ‘scene’.

– Matt Johnston

Chris Timothy on ‘The Valley’

Chris Timothy is a photographer and teacher from England, he runs the 21 Rue De La Hachette blog which is well worth a follow. He got in touch to add thoughts on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’ with reference to key images. If you do not have access to the book make sure you check out our video from cover to cover.

Chris Timothy on Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’

Larry Sultans work entitled “The Valley” documents the filming of pornographic movies in his hometown of San Fernando Valley in Southern California. The Valley is an average middle class area, where homes cater for the needs of dentists, lawyers and strangely enough porn stars. These wonderful homes are rented out to the porn industry for live scenes to be captured in an aspirational setting. The strategy that ensures the body of works identity is different to that in which it is documenting is its main angle of concentration on location rather than the actors or actresses being sexualised or objectified. Sultan’s images explore the issues surrounding the questions; why would the owners of these middle class homes rent them to the industry, why does the industry want them? And maybe most importantly what are the consequences?

Why would the owners of these middle class homes rent them to the industry? Is it a sense of self-indulgence on the owner’s part or is it simply a method of further financial gain, which helps with the continuity of the middle class lifestyle? I believe it is the later. To rent out your home to the porn industry is a big moral decision and to do so is a clear indication of where you stand on the issue. However Sultan’s work discretely highlights maybe this moral decision is simply ignored and the homes are being rented out without too much thought to what the consequences may actually be. Sultan’s images show family portraits and personal photographs of the homeowners, their friends and their families, left on shelves and cabinet tops. These photographs are being captured in the background of sexual scenes and taken into the industry. While the viewers are consuming sexual media texts the home owners family and friends are on full view. Is this conscious choice of Sultan to show this demonstrating the loss of morality and care for others when a high amount of money is involved.

Child's Bedroom, Calabassas, 2001 ©LARRY SULTAN

So why does the industry want these homes? The choice of location has been made by the production companies to satisfy the needs of the consumers of the films. Remember, the sole aim of these films are to excite the viewer, so the combination of sexual gratification and aspirational images and locations will help the audiences purpose of consumption be met. To set scenes in houses, which most are not able to afford adds to the fantasy aspect for consumers and maybe most importantly adds to the escapism. Sultan’s choice of mis en scene within some of his images demonstrates this.

west valley studio #13, 2003 ©LARRY SULTAN

There is a definite juxtaposition between the property owners and the porn stars. One of Sultan’s images will focus on the pleasure and excitement of being a porn star and the next, the banality of sitting, sleeping and generally waiting around on set. This drastic change of emotion could be compared to that stereotypical view of a superficial consumer lifestyle held by the middle class. One minute you are filled with excited with a purchase that most would not be able to afford, the next this excitement has worn off.  You find yourself sitting in your museum of expensive purchases with the realisation that boredom has set in due to a lack of motivation and purpose of a lifestyle where there is no need to work towards anything, success has already been achieved.

Tasha's Third Film, 1998

Although Sultan states this work is not focused on the stars of the porn industry, after the audience views the images, most cant help but question why the actors and actresses take part in the industry. Do they perform due to a sense of aspiration and a desire to gain financial clout from a profession that is relatively high paid? Are the actors motivated by and aspire to be the very people who are renting their homes to the industry in which they work? So what are the consequences of the middle class renting out their home to the porn industry? Well, that is a matter of opinion dictated to you by your own moral standing. But what “The Valley” does clearly demonstrate is the porn industry and the films it creates are becoming more and more integrated in every day life and society in the western world.

– Chris Timothy

Erik Saeter Jorgenson – The Valley is my favourite photobook

The Valley is my favourite photobook. It’s the one I wish I had made. As a European, San Fernando Valley is pretty much my idea of the American dream. Equal opportunities in jizzneyland. I think the first image I ever saw from the book was the one with the lady in the killer heels, and the dogs following here. I was hooked. Then I read the essay and was blown away. It was so vivid, I could feel the Cali sun (and the dried cum too). The pictures themselves are so subtle and quiet, businesslike even. At the same time, they’re more cinematic than any porno I’ve ever seen. Porn is all about putting the viewer in the film, but Sultan manages to both be really present, and seemingly invisible at the same time. I still don’t understand how he made some of his shots. Sultan was there, and from first page to last. No book has thinner pages. There have been many books about porn and the performers, but The Valley will always be my American dream.

Synopsis: Larry Sultan – The Valley

Title
The Valley

Author
Larry Sultan

Publisher
Scalo Publishers, 2005

Larry Sultan - The Valley

From the publisher:

Since 1988, Larry Sultan has returned time and again to photograph on porn sets in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley–the Silicon(e) Valley of the porn industry. But The Valley is by no means a documentary on porn filmmaking. Rather, it is a dense series of pictures of middle-class homes invaded by the porn industry. Sultan’s lens focuses on pedestrian details–a piece of half-eaten pie, dirty linens in a heap, “actors” taking a break–that offer clues to a bizarre other-world. The lush and intricate images adroitly play with artifice and reality, adding up to rich, elliptical narratives that circle around the concepts of “home” and “desire.”

These images of homes and gardens, porn actors and film crews, studio and location shootings are an ambiguous meditation on suburbia and its trappings, family and transgression, loss and desire, the utopias and dystopias of middle-class lifestyle. The Valley and its many-layered photographs outline the complexity of domestic life at the beginning of the 21st century, opening up new perspectives for photography through its innovative combination of staged and documentary photographs. In 1998, an English magazine asked me to go on a porn set. After the first five minutes of the strangeness of it all, I started to look around, going to the bedrooms, wandering through the house. It felt like a permission to go into a house in L.A. and to imagine how someone would live their life in this house. I made the pictures for the magazine. I left and thought, “This is it, this is what I have to do.” –Larry Sultan

Resources:

Unfortunately it is not easy to find a collection of the images from ‘The Valley’ in one place. Quite a few however can be found at Sultan’s agent Bill Charles’ website HERE, HERE and HERE

The text by Sultan, from ‘The Valley’, along with some images from the series can be found on American Suburb X here.

Text, Artist statement and interview from the SFMoMA exhibition can be found here