Daze in ‘The Valley’

Photographer Larry Sultan talks “The Valley,” his book about the pornography industry in California’s San Fernando Valley.

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LOS ANGELES — In 1998, photographer Larry Sultan had a porn-again conversion. He was commissioned to shoot the making of an adult film for a magazine and the set, oddly enough, was a house in the San Fernando Valley suburbs.

“I walked through the garage,” recalls Sultan, on the phone from his studio in the San Francisco Bay area, “and found an ordinary house with a rather extraordinary scene taking place.”

A porn production company had rented the house from its owner, a dentist, and it had all the trappings of suburban, house-proud taste.

“What fascinated me was the banality of this oversize suburban home,” Sultan says, “and the transgressive quality of what happened when the owner left. I knew it was perfect for the kind of work I was interested in.”

This, Sultan realized, was the American dream home, but the owner had been dislodged by an unruly “family” of sex professionals and the domestic fantasy had been displaced by one of unbridled sexual adventure. Over the next five years, Sultan returned to the San Fernando suburbs — the Silicone Valley of America’s multibillion-dollar porn industry — to photograph the comings and goings of Monica Mayhem, Michael J. Cox, Red Heaven, Alexandra Silk, Lexington Steele, Taylor St. Claire, Holly Hollywood and other stars of the porn industry.

“I wasn’t interested in sex,” insists the photographer, who is married with two teenaged sons. “It actually took me a while to make pictures that weren’t overwhelmed by the pornography. I have a dislike of work that purports to be documentary but preys on the pleasure of naked bodies.”

His work is the subject of a new book, “The Valley,” and a traveling exhibit that will be seen in New York starting Sept. 8 at the Janet Borden Gallery. There’s plenty of nudity, of course, but often the actual sex is glimpsed from an oblique, phantom’s eye perspective: A threesome of limbs tangle at the edge of the wall-to-wall carpet. A naked man stares out a kitchen window. What is he thinking about? And how did he get those red scratches on his sweaty back?
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