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

Larry Sultan – ‘Katherine Avenue’

‘The Valley’ is not that easily accessible, hence our low-fi cover to cover video of the book. But another option for those looking for an introduction to Sultan’s work could consider the recent Steidl publication ‘Katherine Avenue’. The post below come from Wayne Ford’s fantastic Posterous blog.

Above Mom in Doorway, 1992, from Pictures from Home. (Courtesy of Steidl).

‘The San Fernando Valley is both the place where Larry Sultan (1946-2009) spent his childhood and the notional central point of reference of his artistic work,’ says Martin German in his introduction to Katherine Avenue, ‘In the three groups of works he produced between 1984 and 2009, namely Pictures from Home, The Valley and Homeland, he interweaves visible and invisible aspects of life there with the landscapes of his personal memories.’

Sultan, one of the most influential American photographers of his generation, studied political sciences before enrolling in a photography course at the San Francisco Art Institute under Robert Heinecken (1932-2006) in the late 1960s, reflecting upon this period German says, ‘This was the time when photography formed a bond with conceptual art, to whose marriage Sultan would soon render significant contributions.’

In 1972, Sultan met Mike Mandel with whom he would collaborate on a series of billboard collages that would continue well into the 1990s, through which the pair explored the ‘documentary value of images.’ In 1975, and over the next two years, Sultan and Mandel began working on Evidence (1977), a now seminal artists book that bought together 59 photographs selected from various governmental, research and scientific archives that were then arranged in a non-narrative sequence, removed from the original context and with no captions, Evidence is a complex and demanding work, ‘Thus Evidence not only alludes to the bureaucratic and scientific rituals that legitimated the daily business of the federal authorities in the period shortly after the Vietnam War, but more importantly also refers to the assumptions we make regarding truth and imagery,’ says German.

Above Sharon Wild, 2001, from The Valley. (Courtesy of Steidl).

The questions raised by Evidence would inform and influence much of Sultan’s subsequent work, in 1984 he began Pictures from Home (1992), here alongside the photographs of his parents and their daily middle-class routines and rituals, Sultan presents recordings, notes on conversations and stills from family movies along with other memorabilia to investigate the consequences of neo-liberal economic policies.

Reflecting upon his series, Sultan said, ‘I realize that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live forever.’

In 1999, Sultan was commissioned to document a day in the life of a porn director, whilst known as the home of the American movie industry, the San Fernando valley is also home to the porn industry, were production companies hire private homes for their film shoots, which typically take a few days. This commission turned into The Valley, a series that Sultan worked on until 2003, looking out into the valley, with its upper-middle class tracht homes, Sultan focuses on the periphery of the films sets, presenting the sets and actors as ‘meta-theatre’ says German.

‘While the film crew and “talent” are hard at work in the living room I wander through the rest of the house peering into the lives of the people who suddenly left home. I feel like a forensic photographer searching out evidence in a crime scene. But what is the crime?’

Above Mulholland Drive #2, 2000, from The Valley. (Courtesy of Steidl).

With his final series Homeland, Sultan departs from the domestic exteriors and interiors of the San Fernando Valley, and uses the landscape around San Francisco, where he had lived since the 1970s. In these images Sultan employs day laborers — gardeners, builders and domestic workers — from Central America as actors, photographing them in what he calls ‘marginal spaces and transitional zones invisible to most of us.’ In these images Sultan, directs the ‘men’s actions and gestures while drawing from multiple sources,’ and  amalgam of his ‘own childhood wanderings in this landscape as well as interpretations of their experiences as exiles.’

Above Batting Cage, 2007, from Homeland. (Courtesy of Steidl).

Katherine Avenue is published by Steidl.

Follow me on Twitter for frequent updates on the photographic books and exhibitions I am looking at.

– Wayne Ford

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.

Larry Sultan: Video Obituary and 2008 Interview

In preparation for our look at Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’ in June, the following video obituary was produced by Daylight Magazine and gives a brief but concise insight into Sultan’s work for those who are unfamiliar with it.


See also the Genius of Photography interview with Sultan and his father Irvin below


– Matt Johnston

June’s book is: ‘The Valley’ by Larry Sultan

Throughout June, the Photo Book Club will be looking at Larry Sultan’s ‘The Valley’, a body of work exploring the porn sets in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley–the Silicon(e) Valley of the porn industry.

You can still get hold of the book through amazon as well a selection of the images in Sultan’s ‘Katherine Avenue’ which is very reasonably priced on Amazon and while it does not feature all images, gives a good overview of Sultan’s work in the San Fernando Valley where he grew up.

If you would like to contribute any writing for June then drop us an email: mail@photobookclub.org

THE VALLEY by LARRY SULTAN
KATHERINE AVENUE by LARRY SULTAN