Ken Schles On: The Rare and Unique life of ‘Invisible City’

Invisible City is well known to those who know it and unknown to those that don’t! How do you feel about it being so rare, and considered one of the greats, while many who cannot afford it, have not been able to see it.

– Matt

I wish more people could see it. I feel it has never really been widely known. It went out of print soon after it was published. It was never my intention for it to be so rare. Relatively unknown and yet delighted in, maybe that’s a good definition of it being in a certain kind of club? A good thing people will be able to see it here in this club then. But books of this sort need to be held and flipped through, that I know.

© KEN SCHLES

Books take on their own lives, if they are successful, and go on to have their own histories. I have a few stories around the book. Books reflect back on you. And although this book is relatively obscure because of its rarity, it’s given me a few stories to tell. Walker Evens called his book, American Photographs, his “calling card.” For me, Invisible City was a life-line into a career as a working artist. It has gone places I’ve never been to, spoken to people I’ll never know. It’s always been underground and under the radar. Something people ‘in the know’ seem to know about—whatever that means.

It’s a small private book, and it has affected people in a personal way. But as its creator, I can’t objectively gauge its impact. And I don’t think anybody creating a work of art can ever truly understand what impact one’s work has had. It’s hard enough to know one’s own mind, let alone someone else’s. Sure, over the years I’ve gotten some glimpses. Pre-internet, I’d get the odd phone call. Sometimes people would want to visit, or even send me small gifts. One time I got a phone call from Italy, from a fashion house that said that Robert Frank had told them to call me. I found out through them that Invisible City was a favorite book of his and he was throwing some work my way (eventually there was an ill-fated gallery connection from him too. And it was through that that I eventually met him). One call was from Robert Robertson, the DP who was working on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers at the time. Over the years I found it had had a huge effect on many people in the photo and especially the film industry, but at the time it was considered too ‘raw,’ and too ‘hard’ for the main stream.

© KEN SCHLES

But the world has changed. I’d hear that some teacher was showing it to their students, or there was a lecture about it. In time, I’d be asked to give lectures about it. But not that many people contacted me early on. During that time I kept lamenting that the only good photographer was a dead one. I was still struggling to make ends meet. John Szarkowski at MoMA told me that the museum would have to support my work because it was important and galleries wouldn’t want to hang my pictures on the wall because they were too ‘difficult.’ Unfortunately, John retired soon after and the support wasn’t all that forthcoming as the photoworld and museumworld morphed into something else.

So the book didn’t have a direct impact on my career, not at first anyway. It took a few years. Over time though, it’s been cumulative, and it hasn’t abated. Not in the least. I’d hear of creative meetings in all sorts of creative industries—after the fact, where the book was referenced, but rarely did anyone bother to call me. In that, the book had a strange trajectory. Immediately upon publication, the New York Times selected it as a notable book of the year, but there were not many copies yet in distribution because of a decision to sell most of the copies abroad. Copies were slow to surface in US bookstores and it was considered out of print within a year. When first published, a local favorite bookstore, St. Mark’s Books, had it on their hip new arrivals table. I was really proud of that, but within a week it was hidden behind the cash register because so many copies were being stolen.

© KEN SCHLES

You had to know that it was there and you had to ask for it. To me it was frustrating. How were you to know about a photography book you had never seen? I worked so hard to make it happen, and when it did, immediately it went into hiding. Peter Galassi at the Museum of Modern Art put it on display for the More Than One Photography exhibition, but left it in a vitrine, so nobody could leaf through it or even touch it. Somehow, the book was out there, but it was also hidden. Early reviews came with some caveats. I don’t think the book was that well understood at the time when it first came out. The Times review said I was making obvious connections to Weegee. Others thought I had copied Ed Van der Elsken’s Love On The Left Bank—Susan Kismaric at MoMA showed me that book after she saw mine. I love that book, but I had never seen it before.

© KEN SCHLES

Because of its rarity (it sold out really fast) the price went up quickly and it was lost to a more general public. I couldn’t even afford to buy copies on the secondary market. It stayed hidden away in collections. How do I feel about that? It’s funny, you want something to be successful, but you think that it being a success would cause certain things to happen, which isn’t necessarily the case. I guess I was naïve. When Jack Woody published my book, he also put out that same year Joel Peter-Witkin’s first book and Herb Ritt’s first book. Personally, and in the long run, I think my book is as important as theirs, but they got the museum shows and they got the fame. The attention my book got was pre-internet word of mouth. I see now that it is people of a certain age and from a certain milieu who mostly know of the book. There were no photography book geeks to speak of back then. There were lovers of photography books, but it wasn’t such a vocal and distinct appellation to like photography books. And of those that did their voices had little impact in the larger photographic community.

Not that long ago I was in the office of Phil Block, the director of the school at the International Center of Photography, and while he sings the praises of Invisible City (he was an early and ardent advocate, an early champion of photography books as well) he says that younger people just don’t know about it. To test this, I asked students walking into his office if they’d heard of the book. Most all said they never heard of it. With less than two thousand copies in a world of seven billion people, I think that’s quite understandable. But then again, you just don’t know its impact. In 1999, I got an email from the Dutch photographer and curator, Machiel Botman. He and the curator Wim Melis of the Noorderlicht Foundation for Photography wanted to make my work the center of a festival that included a slew of some very impressive photographers (I don’t want to leave any names out, so please look at this link). They said, “We love Invisible City, what have you been doing lately?” That exhibition led to the publication of my second book, The Geometry of Innocence, published by Hatje Cantz, in Germany, 13 years after IC came out.

© KEN SCHLES

I hadn’t a clue that there was an audience of people that knew of my work outside the U.S. I felt like one of those old forgotten jazz musicians who had to go to Europe to find their audience. So, in that sense, I wish my work wasn’t so obscure to people. It’s been a long and somewhat hard road. I’m lucky that I can still work and explore new avenues of ideas. By and large, Invisible City was my passport to entry. I’m proud of its successes. From all the responses from people over the years who have sought me out to tell me what impact the book has had on their lives, I would think that more people would like to know about it. But with few copies about and people being so precious about them, I can understand why more people don’t know about it. I wish Invisible City more luck in the coming years. More is hard to say.

– Ken Schles

 

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.

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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.