San Francisco

Larry Sultan

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

The San Fernando Valley, the collection of middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods and industrial parks that sprawls along the arid flatlands behind the Hollywood sign, is notorious as an ur-suburb, the location of the Brady Bunch split-level manse and other faux sitcom residences. Yet despite this wholesome association, it has evolved into the capital of porn-video production. In Larry Sultan’s series “The Valley,” 1998–2003, most of which was shot on adult-film locations, the area’s social complexity emerges with remarkable economy. As a group, the fifty-three large-scale chromogenic prints convey a rich quasi narrative rooted in American lifestyle ideals. Sultan, a longtime resident of northern California, grew up in the Valley, which he famously depicted in his 1992 series “Pictures from Home.” For this earlier sequence, he photographed his aging parents in their San Fernando house, with its lime green walls and lush lawn. The images are posed yet convincing scenes from a life of leisure.

The trope of “The Valley” is that actual residences serve as locations for triple-X films, ones that tell ordinary tales enhanced by supersize physical appetites and endowments. Sultan honors the ordinariness of his subject. His pictures are suffused with the plush theatricality afforded by professional lighting and the self-conscious poses of actors (female porn stars frequently appear in curlers) yet are equally realistic representations of middle-class aspirations, backyard pleasures, racial tensions, and tastes in decor.

In a wall text, Sultan pointed to a sense of the locations’ having been abandoned by their inhabitants, as though these homes had been left to house sitters who just happened to be making an adult video. The pictures’ effectiveness is rooted in the clues to identity that are scattered throughout each scene. The naked, makeup-coated bodies are as interesting as the chrome dishwashers and overstuffed couches, the vodka bottle on the countertop and the menorah on the bookshelf. A toppled roll of paper towels makes for an unlikely link between sex and housecleaning.

Sultan also shoots in the actual film studios where equally realistic domestic narratives are constructed. Backyard Film Set, 2002, depicts a verdant outdoor location created in a studio with a photographic backdrop and artificial grass. The unpopulated setting promises an Edenic purity, though the crew’s equipment, plastic garbage can, and ugly chairs that intrude reveal that this is not only an artificial scenario but also a real workplace.

In many of the photographs, Sultan engineers single-frame narratives in which flesh functions as an initial lure. In Mulholland Drive #2, 2000, two semi-clothed women get busy on a brocade couch. They are obscured by an urn of flowers that deflects attention from the sound boom to the right. Similarly, Cabaña, 2000, shows a poolside tryst partially visible through a droopy rosebush. While attempting to untangle the sexual activity, we scan the scene for further evidence—the pile of abandoned jeans and panties, the fully clothed person on the sideline, the satellite dishes on the balcony.

Sultan also employs layering that connects interior and exterior space. In Tasha’s Third Film, 1998, a window divides the image as cast and crew are shown lounging on the living-room couch while a scene is shot on the patio. Off Sepulveda, 2001, is a voyeuristic peek at a blow job being administered in an upscale living room, complete with a reflection of the pricey hilltop real estate and the photographer’s own silhouette. Sultan’s presence here is key to the work’s poignancy; examining a site with which one has an established emotional connection is an uncommonly valid reason to be caught looking.

Glen Helfand