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The ValleyReview - The Valley
by Larry Sultan
Scalo, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jun 13th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 24)

Like Jeff Burton's recent book The Other Place (reviewed in Metapsychology 9:31), Larry Sultan's The Valley shows porn actors at work.  Sultan's approach is more documentary than Burton's: he explains his project in his introduction, and nearly all the pictures are crisply in focus.  He went around the San Fernando Valley into different private houses which the owners rented out for the making of porn videos.  He shows these residential homes populated by unusual goings-on, and his initial images emphasize the artificiality of it all.  The first picture shows a house exterior, and it takes a second look to notice that it is an image projected on a screen inside the house: you can see the floor in front of the screen and some furniture behind it.  The second picture is taken from a nearby hill, and in the center of the image shows a single-level home nestled in the valley, with a white picket fence bordering the garden.  It almost looks like a model, and in the third picture, we actually see an architectural model of a home, with a toy car outside and fake trees and shrubbery arranged around the large house.  The fifth picture shows an interior, with dark-wood old-fashioned ornately decorated furniture.  Yet obviously the furniture is nearly band new: the middle piece houses a large TV and has stereo equipment below.  On the left hand side, there is a glimpse of a naked woman kneeling down bending forward, but we can only see her hips and her lower limbs.  By almost ignoring the naked woman, the picture shows her nakedness is almost irrelevant, and the focus is more on the pretentiousness of the home furnishing.  Bad taste in decorating is a theme in many of the images: another shows a naked woman in tights putting on a bra, staring distractedly at something out of frame, while another woman leans forward, looking like she is putting on a shoe.  Carefully in frame is a tacky painting on the wall, showing a stagecoach and horses going through the mountains, and behind the woman is an indoor fireplace set in an ugly wall composed of fake large stones.  The picture is composed of close colors: cream, browns, pinks, reds, and brass, but far from being warm, it feels cold and tense.  The two women are not looking at each other, and their poses are awkward. 

Indeed, in very few of the photographs do people look at each other: sometimes they are all looking at something out of the picture, or they just seem to be entirely separate from each other.  They give the sense of a terrible lack of connection.  Quite often Sultan will block the central pornographic action from the viewer with an object such as a vase full of flowers, a bush in the garden, or some other obstacle.  Maybe he wants to avoid his own work itself being pornographic, and he succeeds in this.  At the same time, this avoidance of the central subject conveys a distaste for the porn itself.  He captures the actors in moments when they are relaxing or when they are bored, sitting around between scenes.  He sometimes shows the crew doing their jobs, looking very unexcited.  Or sometimes he just takes pictures of interesting objects in people's houses: a surfboard, a drum kit, or even the play light on a staircase, as if he finds those more interesting than the sex being filmed elsewhere in the house.  While The Valley is by no means anti-porn, it is far from enthusiastic about the enterprise.  The main feelings it conveys are boredom, incongruity, and emptiness. 

There are some moments of warmth among these images.  In "Backyard, Laurel Canyon, 2003," she shows a man and a woman sitting on a box leaning toward each other, having some kind of intimate conversation.  He lightly touches her on the knee with an index finger, and that suggests much more connection between the two people than any of the images of people having sex.  In another picture, "Chandler Boulevard, 2000," a large-busted blond woman sits on a plastic couch, wearing some kind of shiny blue top and clinging pants.  She is looking at someone else out of the picture, and looks quite relaxed, with a big smile on her face.  Looking carefully at the picture, you notice she has her hands down her pants and she is touching herself, but she seems entirely comfortable.  In "Patio, Bosque Drive, 2003," a nude woman sits in a plastic white chair in a garden.  She is leaning back, a little slouched, with a towel on her lap and a cup resting at an angle in her left hand.  Her right hand hangs in mid-air, the back of it touching the side of her face.  Her large breasts with huge round nipples lie on her torso.  She stares right into the camera, looking extremely contented and a little contemplative.  It seems like a friendly peaceful moment between her and Sultan. 

So The Valley is a striking book that provides more subtle commentary on the porn industry than Burton's The Other Place or Timothy Greenfield-Sanders in XXX.  The images are powerful, especially when viewed in the context of the whole work.  Larry Sultan has taken on a difficult subject skillfully, and this collection repays careful and repeated viewing. 


© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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