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

Larry Sultan: Interview with Terri Whitlock on ‘The Valley’

This interview was originally published in the accompanying catalogue to Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’ exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

BEGIN
Bay Area photographer Larry Sultan’s The Valley series focuses on the San Fernando Valley, where he grew up, and addresses the use of ordinary homes as sets for pornographic films. In Sultan’s large-scale color photographs, mundane objects-a roll of paper towels, a stack of dirty dishes-take on new weight, and suburban life becomes a symbolically charged backdrop. The project investigates the meaning of home and asks why the ideal of middle-class domesticity lends itself to this most curious form of cultural appropriation.

Tell me about the work you made prior to your current series, The Valley.
Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles provides the foundation for much of my work. I see The Valley as an outgrowth of two bodies of work that preceded it. Pictures from Home was a ten-year project exploring the myths of family life. I used my parent’s family snapshots and stills from their home movies along with photographs that I made of them to create an interweaving set of images and text that explores how photography helps to construct family history and identity. In the second body of work, I collaborated with Harrel Fletcher and John Rubin to create a store in the Stoneridge shopping mall in Pleasanton [California] that functioned as a mock documentary of the surrounding suburbs. Those two projects are both narrative in their underpinnings-they are attempts to tell stories about the complexity of life in the suburbs.

I find a lot of depictions of suburban life to be quite shallow. Either they’re hypercritical, like new topographics where tract homes are seen as generic structures for generic lives, or they’re the kind of one-dimensional dramas or sitcoms that are prevalent in popular culture. Neither of these depictions get to the complex desires or longings underlying this great American dream of suburban home ownership. To me, the suburban home is a kind of projection screen for fantasies, it’s rich for storytelling.

The Valley is an intriguing extension of Pictures from Home. How did this development come about, and how did you gain access to the adult film industry?

I was commissioned to do a magazine story on a day in the life of a porn star. I flew down to L.A. with my wife and drove from Burbank to the Valley, about a block from where I went to high school. I walked into this dentist’s house that, not unusually, had all his family pictures on display. I noticed pictures of his children and his wife, and then I noticed a tangle of bodies in the middle of the room. The friction between the reality of that familial setting and the fantasy that was being played out was so close to what I had grappled with in a lot of my prior work that I knew I had to explore it further. So I talked to the director and brought him pictures that I had taken of all the cast and crew. They were delighted with them, so they let me back on the set. I was allowed in very quietly, without ever going to studio heads directly. I came through the back door, set up relationships, and slowly it led to access. It took a long time, however, to identify what kind of sets I was interested in, what kind of directors and crews I felt comfortable with.

What is the time span of this series? How many film sets did you visit in order to make this work?

I started in the latter part of 1998 and shot until 2003. I went to probably a hundred sets.

I read that 80 percent of all adult films produced in this country are made in the San Fernando Valley. Having grown up there, were you surprised to discover that this unassuming suburb of Los Angeles is the capital of the U.S. adult film industry?
No I wasn’t surprised. First, the proximity to Hollywood gives the porn industry a huge pool of talent. People who work for mainstream films — grips, directors, lighting guys, makeup and hair stylists — also work in the adult film industry. It’s kind of a parallel universe. Also it is the place where actors can go to make money when they cannot make it in mainstream films. That’s the economic and practical side.

But psychologically the Valley is also very connected to L.A. — the promise of L.A. and how the city is so embedded with the idea of stardom and happiness. Historically people have come to LA in hopes of changing and improving their lives. The Valley, too, has always been about fantasy. That’s why you have Tudor homes next to Mediterranean ones, palm trees next to pines. It’s about creating your own identity. The porn industry recognizes the lure of this fantasy-of-possibilities, it’s part of the fantasy adult film consumers are looking for as well. I find it interesting that the majority of porn consumers probably live in the suburbs, and they probably feel more comfortable with a drama that is set in the suburbs. That’s the key-your fantasy life can be found in your neighbor’s house-this makes what is desired seem attainable.

How do your pictures differ from the images adult filmmakers are seeking? You are both using the same raw material, so to speak-their sets are your settings and their actors are your models.
Well, we’re driven by completely contrary purposes. The directors want to make good films, but basically they’re being paid to do one thing — excite the viewer. That’s the opposite of what I want to do. I certainly don’t want to sexually arouse anybody. But I do want to arouse the viewer’s curiosity and sense of mystery. I’m interested not in the construction of pornography, but rather in dismantling it, in exploring domesticity, the construction of desire; all as a way of dealing with my own projections, my own nostalgia of growing up in those houses.

The key has been to collaborate with the people on the sets so that they allow themselves to be seen without the masquerade of their sexual personae. I want to show them as people. I don’t want them to be glamour girls or glamour boys — that’s a very tired set of images. I don’t think there’s any mystery left to explore there. But the artificiality of the sets is mysterious and there is something there that transforms the house into something unsettling and uncanny.

Because men make up the majority of adult film consumers, is it more difficult for a male artist to use this industry as subject matter in a way that transcends itself? Did you have any hesitations going into this project?
In her book Hardcore, Linda Williams wrote that in recent years pornography has become a cohesive study for a lot of theorists, many of whom are post-feminists or queer theorists. But she said the area seems to still be off limits to white heterosexual men, because we make up the bulk of the consumers, and to a great extent the creators, of this material. It’s a complicated subject. I don’t want to situate myself as a voyeur or as consumer. In making this work, I was aware of the questions that could be raised concerning why I am speaking about this topic or what right I have to speak about it. Until recently, I found that I was editing out all the pictures that showed sexual acts, but then I realized that there is a level of genuine pleasure on the set — there is conviviality and fun and humor. I went back and found some really wonderful pictures that I was afraid to include previously. It is a complex subject, and I think it will continue to be a complex subject, because pornography has so many undercurrents of oppression.

Your pictures show the reality, or rather the banality, of working in the pornography industry. The actors are most often portrayed detached from their film personas; we see them on a cigarette break, talking on their cell phone, or sitting around in curlers. Could you talk about the how the actors are portrayed in your pictures?
I don’t think there is complete consistency. Sometimes they’re seen very clearly as actors in a drama they’re not in control of — they seem wary of or victimized by it. Sometimes they seem absolutely in control of the camera’s gaze-and getting pleasure from their power of seduction.

In my photographs, I’m essentially casting an alternate film. My drama is not centered around sexuality, but rather around domestic relations, family relations. Who are these people? What is their relationship to each other? Sometimes they have relationships very directly connected to my own childhood memories. There’s a sense of pleasure in the suburbs. This is a place where, in the middle of the day, everyone stops work and has a great time together. The other side is very dark and isolating and lonely and lost. Both of those ways of experiencing the suburbs are operating simultaneously in my pictures. The actors often reveal their relationship to the industry in a way that parallels my relationship to the suburbs — one that embodies both pleasure and boredom.

To me the documentary side of this work — or the illusion of documentary — is very important. I want to refer to life rather than to the films. My photographs reference the artifice of pornography, but they also capture real people in their own genuine moments. For example, a man is shown standing in the kitchen, looking out the window. He happens not to have any clothes on, but for me, that picture recalls a really poignant moment where, in the middle of the day you have a cold glass of water and you look out the window and wonder, what am I doing here?

Your work has a witty edge to it; I recognize this not just in The Valley but also in your previous bodies of work. To what effect do you use humor in these pictures?
I find the situations quite hilarious at times-strange in the smallest ways. Sometimes it’s just the settings — those home interiors are so wild. Sometimes it’s the visual puns that occur between the materials of the couch and the fireplaces and then the bodies-naked bodies can be quite humorous in a situation where you don’t expect to see them. Sometimes it’s funny because there’s mischief being played out. I’m interested in the kind of mischief that upturns the house, takes the order and control out of what we think of as domestic life, and really creates a kind of excess where things spill out like in a carnival, where the whole house is vibrating like a washing machine on its spin cycle. It’s loony, and it’s sexual, and it’s out of control. I love that quality of things being out of control, especially in the suburbs, because suburbia is the height of imposed control. Life in the suburbs is monitored by parents, neighbors, police. For about an hour on the set, none of the rules or codes apply — that craziness can be funny.

While some of your pictures make use of the industry’s cinematic lighting for dramatic effect, you have also included some seemingly ordinary domestic scenes in the series: a kitchen counter with dirty dishes piled in the sink and over-decorated interiors or backyards. These everyday views, which are familiar to all of us, take on a darker suggestiveness in the context of the other photographs. Why did you choose to include these pictures?
I think these pictures do a very important job. They take the narrative momentum, and the context in which you expect a certain kind of sexual drama, and they condense it, they quiet it down, they bring it back to the ordinary, back to the mundane. Many of them also have an elegiac quality of loss and vulnerability. While these pictures establish the homey-ness of the setting, the other pictures undo that sense of home. They speak to the fragility of our sense of order. Together, the pictures simultaneously construct and dismantle domestic life. I think this is kind of a swan song for our post-war American family dreams.

The majority of your pictures do not reveal whatever activity is being played out for the film cameras. In some cases you photograph the scene in such a way that furniture or the film crew actually obscure the line of vision. You also make use of strategic cropping to add ambiguity to what we are looking at. This approach not only places the burden back on the viewer to decode the picture, but it also underscores the act of looking. In contrast to easily consumable adult film plots, your pictures require more interpretation by the viewer. What was your strategy in photographing the more deliberately enigmatic pictures such as Havenhurst?
For one it’s very important that a viewer situate themselves in my pictures. Discovering the picture’s meaning is an open field of wandering — the open-endedness of the pictures is really important. This is particularly true of the images where the situation is not quite clear. In some cases, I compose the picture so that the subject matter does not overwhelm the photograph. In some pictures where I’ve actually obscured the sexual act, I’ve done it in a way that forces the viewer to look at areas on the periphery. Your eye wanders around the picture, allowing you to notice other details.

In Canopy, Woodland Hills, for instance, the ceiling is much more important than the actor in the scene, because that kind of cottage cheese-like ceiling is the ceiling of my childhood. It carries with it so much that identifies the psychology of this place. I play a certain cat-and-mouse game. If I show too much, I’ve killed the picture — it’s no longer interesting to me. If I show too little, it appears I’m being coy.

A photograph constructs reality through what the frame excludes as much as what it contains. You address this concept in a very sophisticated way by making photographs that critique the medium of photography itself. The perception of a photograph as a document of truth seems antiquated, yet it can be easy for viewers to forget that photographs are not pure representations of reality, to forget that photography is a medium that creates fiction as much as any other. What are the comparisons you are drawing between the fiction of photography and those of middle-class identity or the adult film industry? You’ve found a very unique intersection of those three things.
There are a number of things I’m interested in here. I’m very conscious that I grew up in a family where the home was a theatrical setting. As a child, my parents hired a decorator, and she painted a grape tree in the living room and put rubber grapes on its tendrils. She also put gold leaf on a Picasso print so that it looked like Picasso had painted in gold. We had shag carpets, and our living room was one that no one went into. We lived in that kind of situation where our family house was a theater. Family life is already a stage — home is situated as a symbol of the good life and as an extension of our desired identities.
There is a kind of ethnographic quality to observing these sets. I feel like a forensic photographer at times, looking for the trace that has been left on the manicured home by the event staged within it. I wonder how the house recovers from the event of a porn film? How does a family occupy a house after they’ve given it up for a day?

These photographs function in several ways; they raise questions about domesticity, artifice, spectatorship, and the nature of representation. Although the setting and players are of the porn industry, your subject is really much broader and more complex. How would you describe this work to someone who has not seen it?
It’s really important for me to convey that I’m coming back home to where I grew up. I’m returning to this neighborhood where people are out watering lawns in the last light of the day or bringing in the trash. All that familiarity is paired with this weird scene where women with really high heels and men with tattoos all over the place are lined up on the street like a fire drill and you think, “What are they doing in the suburbs? They don’t belong here.” This ordinary landscape has gotten strange.

In this fiction things are happening that shouldn’t: people aren’t going to work, a delivery boy comes to the door and he’s asked in, a couple walking up the street with suitcases is asked in for lunch, and then there’s this neighbor who’s looking for a cup of sugar, and all of a sudden she is invited into a place in which everything is suspended for an afternoon of pleasure.

That level of fantasy can be compared to the fantasy I grew up with, in terms of an idyllic life where the father was always dressed up in a tie and he’d call his son Junior and his daughter Babs and he’s always home. Well none of our dads were ever home because they were traveling salesmen. I’m interested in portraying a world that compensates for what we’re missing — the plentitude that we would like to see that isn’t there. My work is really about trying to show suburban life as complex as I think it is, through metaphors and stories, about trying to tell these stories clearly and poignantly without them becoming clichés, about recovering some of the longing and loss of this familiar American-dream landscape.

Larry Sultan is a professor in the photography department at California College of Art. He has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and five National Endowment for the Arts Photography Fellowships. His work has been featured in many exhibitions and public art projects, including Larry Sultan: Pictures from Home, which opened at the San Jose Museum of Art in 1992 and traveled to six additional venues.

Terri Whitlock is a curatorial associate in the Department of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She assisted Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography, in organizing Larry Sultan: The Valley for the Museum.
Larry Sultan: The Valley is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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.

VIDEO – Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’

Here from cover to cover is Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’ for those who do not have access to a copy, and due to it’s limited number, this may be many of you.
An extensive excerpt of the text that accompanies the book ‘Nature is strange in the Valley’ is shown below and gives a little more insight from Sultan.


We would love to hear your thoughts, especially if this is the first time you have seen the book. Get involved in Twitter by using the #photobc hashtag, on Facebook here or in the comment section below.

Nature is strange in the Valley by Larry Sultan

It’s time for lunch. The sounds of clattering plates and muffled conversations drift upstairs. In cool, dark rooms, amber light glows through shades drawn in the middle of the summer day. Someone is napping fitfully. He’s bored rather than tired. He wakes up with a feeling of dread. In those first moments of confusion, he tries to assess which house he is in and what he’s doing there.

Downstairs, everyone has gathered in the large two-car garage. Folding tables have been set up with an array of cold cuts: stacks of wheat and rye bread, potato salad, paper bowls filled with cashews and M&M’s. There is a large platter of jumbo shrimp arranged in a circle around a head of lettuce. A tall woman wearing a T-shirt and thong spears one with a toothpick. Balancing paper plates filled with food, people drift into the back yard, a large grassy area with uninterrupted views of the San Fernando Valley. They look like friends and lovers having a Sunday picnic as they lie about in small groups in the few areas shaded by sycamore trees. To the far side of the yard, crew members are beginning to set up movie lights and a stand with a large silver reflector. On the lawn is a huge wind fan, and next to it Michael, the director, is talking with his wife, Julie Anne, who’s wearing a flowing pink dressing gown with a white fur collar. Her clear acrylic high heels are sinking into the grass, and he offers her his arm as she reaches back to pull off her shoe. Directly behind them, near the edge of the yard where the lawn ends abruptly in a vertical drop, stand 5-foot-tall letters cut from plywood, painted white and anchored in the ground with diagonal supports. DOOWYLLOH. It takes a moment to make sense of it, but then it’s as clear as the day: Facing out toward miles of subdivisions and malls, a miniature version of the sign — Hollywood in the Valley.

The house is a big, two-story “old hacienda”–style place, built sometime in the 1970s. When I called to get the location for today’s shoot, the production assistant assured me that I would like it. “You’ve really got to see this house: high ceilings, enormous rooms, a spiral staircase. It’s a real mansion with an incredible view.” In the past 10 years, homes in the Valley have become the preferred locations for adult-film companies, which rent them from their owners for the two to three days that it takes to make a porn film. In reality this house is just an oversize variation of a tract home, with sliding glass doors and cottage-cheese ceilings. It’s been customized with dark wood paneling, overbearing stonework, marble counters and other features that give it the appearance of the “good life,” of wealth and taste. Wandering from room to room, I get the feeling that something went wrong, that the owners have left suddenly in the middle of the night. They’ve abandoned the entertainment center with their mega-TV and sound system, the exercise room that has been converted into an office, the bleak master-bedroom suite with its Jacuzzi and statuary. They’ve left behind some evidence, personal effects, notes by the phone, shopping lists and “things to do” stuck to the refrigerator. In the living room there hangs a formal portrait of the family standing in the back yard in late-afternoon light. It’s been printed on textured paper and framed in gold to give it the appearance of an oil painting. Throughout the house there are more casual photographs, 8-by-10s of smiling sons and daughters, the family dogs, the big anniversary party on the cruise ship. They cover all available surfaces and stare down at us from nearly every wall in the house.

A few years after we moved from our first house in working-class Van Nuys into a new house in Woodland Hills at the far western edge of the Valley, my mother hired an interior decorator. With marble-tile floors, Formica kitchen counters, and 12-foot fireplaces in the den and living room, the house felt cold and needed to be “cozied up.” The decorator was from South Carolina, and, as my father would say, she was “quite a dish.” She had piles of brassy red hair and wore tight white pants that revealed faint traces of either beige or pink panties. I remember my fascination with her lipstick, which covered her mouth well beyond its natural borders. She had my mother completely under her spell.

It didn’t take long to see the results of her handiwork. She painted a grape vine on the kitchen wall and attached real rubber grapes to its tendrils. She was crazy about gold leaf and applied it freely, on the upholstered footstools, the end tables, the oversized candleholder standing next to the sofa, and on a big wooden box that sat on the coffee table with no discernable purpose. She brought in bright green shag carpets and a massive coffee table adorned with gold and black paint, and she filled the gaps on our bookshelves with Reader’s Digest compilations. But the real pride and joy for all of us was the painting she made that hung over the length of our flesh-colored Naugahyde sectional: a sweeping panorama of an Italian landscape. In the foreground jesters danced with bare-breasted women in the courtyard of imagery Florentine villa. It was bold and magical — too bold, it seems. After a year or two my mother had it cut into two parts and each was reframed. One piece appeared in the dining room and the other in the living room, where no one ever ventured.

The entire house vibrates, shaking as if a dozen overloaded washing machines were stuck on the spin cycle. Exaggerated moans, groans and screams erupt from the back rooms. From the crescendo I can tell that the director has called for the FIP (fake internal pop) shot. I half expect the next-door neighbors or the police to rush over and bang on the doors to see if everything, everyone is all right. But then it grows quiet.

The talent get up from their positions and reach for bottles of cool water and dry towels. The cameraman is distracted and forgets to turn off the camera. It dangles from his arm, relaying a series of random images of the interior landscape of the bedroom over to the monitor in the next room: the junction of wall and ceiling, the corners of dressers, a chair and parts of bodies, under the bed. It’s as if someone, overcome by excitement and intense desire, is crawling around the room on his hands and knees interrogating every object and surface for its secrets.

Being on a film set is a bit like those endless summer days of high school: hanging out, waiting for something to happen; snacking, even when you’re not hungry; napping in the middle of the day. Invariably I end up standing around in the back yard.

Nature is strange in the Valley, a chaotic mix of unrelated trees and plants that share the same space. Palm, spruce, eucalyptus, poplar and pine, all in neighboring yards, each seeming to generate its own microclimate. There is a peculiar quality of silence that hovers over these streets, like an invisible dome that insulates it from the noises of the working life of Los Angeles. It filters the light and softens the edges of things, giving them a glow like a landscape seen through a thin layer of gauze. The heavy air becomes a medium for amplifying the small sounds that occasionally reverberate throughout the neighborhood. A car door closes; someone wheels in the garbage can; a few kids yell at each other in a back yard; a roofer off in the distance hammers for a few seconds, stops and then starts up again. Standing in the back yard listening to these sounds has the effect of slowing down time, elongating the space between the random sonic events.

The cord to the refrigerator is pulled from the wall socket; the air conditioner is turned off in the heat of the day; toilets go unflushed; conversation stops. Everything is still except the wild knot of bodies writhing on floors, couches and tables.

I walk around on tiptoe, stand in hallways and lean against walls. I want to see but don’t. I pretend not to look. Like an argument or a fistfight, the scene grabs my attention, pulls me in.

The event of filming creates a sexualized zone in which the gestures, rituals and scenes of suburban domestic life take on a peculiar weight and density. The furnishings and objects in the house, which have been carefully arranged, become estranged from their intended function. The roll of paper towels on the coffee table, the bed linens in a pile by the door, the shoes under the bed are transformed into props or the residue of unseen but very imaginable actions. Even the piece of half-eaten pie on the kitchen counter arouses suspicion.

The production assistant comes in and tells everyone on the set that we’re not allowed to park on the street in front of the house. She tells us to park farther up the block or on the next street over. As if in a fire drill, we pour out of the house and stand somewhat dazed in the glaring light that bounces off the driveway in front. In the minute or two it takes to walk to our cars, the sidewalk hosts a brief spectacle: a parade of women in 6-inch heels and tight, skimpy clothes and men with shaved heads and tattoos, all laughing, talking loudly and smoking cigarettes. I look across the street to see if neighbors have come to their windows or out onto their front porches to watch, but they haven’t. The few people who are at home stay deep inside their houses.

I park way up the street, and as I walk from my car I meet up with Claudia, a woman in her early 20s who is just getting started in porn films. It feels slightly strange to be walking the street in the middle of the day, like we’re either intruders or a father-daughter team of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She tells me that she grew up in this neighborhood and that her best friends lived just a few blocks away. She tells me that they would hang out together all summer long in the pool house in the back yard, watching TV, getting stoned. They were known as the Big Titty Committee. I ask her if she went to the local high school, Taft High, where I went to school. “Yeah,” she says, “but only for a year. Then I was sent away to school in Colorado, one of those survival-type programs. I was a bad girl. I guess I still am.”

There was a girl my age who lived in the corner house at the end of the street and who went to the same high school as I did. She had a remarkable body and a very bad complexion. To solve some of the social problems caused by her acne, she reportedly gave sexual favors to the jocks and the more popular guys at Taft High. Late in the afternoon when school was out I would see all these guys milling around her house and lining up at the front door. There was Gary H., the quarterback, and Barry A., the big overweight linesman. I would endlessly imagine what these guys got to do with her. I pictured them in all possible combinations.

Once while we were waiting at the corner for the school bus, she glanced over at me and made an obscene gesture: Her arms at right angles to her body, she began pumping them in and out. It confused me and I had no idea how to respond to her. But I took it as a sign and later that day I got up my nerve and walked down to her house. I was worried that in order to have sex I might have to kiss her. All I could picture were her blackheads and enlarged pores, a troubling image and an omen of a bad performance. But it was too late; I was already knocking on her front door. When she opened it, she was taller and more imposing than I had remembered. She was wearing a flower-print dress that lent her an unexpected air of modesty as well as maturity. She stared at me for a few seconds, like she didn’t know who I was. Then a strange smile or smirk appeared on her face. “What do you want?” I just stood there feeling the blood drain from my face into my hands that were dangling at my sides. I couldn’t begin to find the words.

It’s Wednesday, the middle of the week, and everyone is taking the day off. Men and women return home from work early, bringing carloads of friends with them. The streets are lined with black SUVs, Cadillacs and Corvettes. There’s no place to park.

It looks like an interracial block party, with Latinos and African-Americans wheeling suitcases filled with sexy costumes up driveways and into back yards. Deliverymen, saleswomen, and neighbors who have lost their dogs or who need a cup of sugar come to the door and are invited in for lunch. There’s nothing like a good, hot lunch in the middle of the day, pasta with sausage and peppers and chicken and plenty of sauce. The television is on, but the volume is turned way down. In the back yard, the automatic pool sweeper drifts around the pool making a swishing noise, almost like a muffled rain bird: sh sh sh sh. The pool looks like a blue oasis sparkling in the heat. People sit around in small clusters and joke, make small talk and eat. Slowly they lose their inhibitions. A young woman leans over and asks if her breath smells; a man stands up and casually takes off his clothes. Someone is nibbling on someone else’s neck.

What could be better? A lazy afternoon in the suburbs with all the time in the world to enjoy the small things and to spend a day in another’s arms. A day that is punctuated not by noisy children and errands but by the urges and fantasies of the people gathered together here. They raid the refrigerator and put whipped cream, butter and even mustard on each other’s naked bodies. They rub one another into a frenzy. They crowd into the master bedrooms and spill out onto the kitchen floors and onto the patios and into the pools that look just like our neighbors’ pools, like our pool, and do the stuff of daydreams.

It’s a day when no one turns away from another, when tentative glances and awkward first moves are met with passionate approval. Everyone is seen, and held, and longed for. One’s clumsy body knows exactly what to do. It is a day when betrayals are overlooked or are mutually forgiven.

But at the end of it all, these people do not retire to the living room to watch their favorite TV programs together. Nor do they go upstairs to bed. Instead they pack up their high heels, fancy underwear and sweaty T-shirts, and they carry them to their cars. They pat the backs and kiss the cheeks of those who earlier in the day were such intense lovers. Exhausted, they drive across the Valley to their apartments.

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