© Gerhard Jörén from first deadly sin
Deadly: Gerhard Jörén’s first deadly sin and male photographers photographing sex work
A confession (good to start a review of a book about sex with one of those). I wouldn’t have chosen to even pick up a coffee-table style publication sporting a misty black and white geisha-like image, complete with slinking cat, especially not if it carried the title ‘first deadly sin’ like this book by Gerhard Jörén.
Yet my own instinctive reaction seemed worthy of examination. It’s not the first time recently I’ve forced myself to question my resistance to (male) photographers pointing the camera towards women in various states of vulnerability and undress. A few weeks ago, I acquainted myself with the work of Michael Grieve, which – another confession – I’d always purposely avoided due to what I had dismissed as its voyeuristic overtones. When I saw images from Killing Kittens (a study of a high-class sex club) in The Sunday Times, I felt it was a fairly gratuitous if good-looking body of work, perhaps better suited to the unashamedly superficial Style section of that newspaper.
© Gerhard Joren from first deadly sin
Later, looking through Grieve’s queasily beautiful body of work No Love Lost – soon to be published in book form - I began to feel that my first reaction was the equivalent of bracketing Belle de Jour with Debbie Does Dallas. Grieve is using photography to capture the highly performative aspect of the sex industryand if his work raises questions about the dislocation of intimacy and the nature of commodity – and I believe it does – then what grounds do I have to question his personal motivation for choosing to turn his lens to sex? That didn’t stop me from asking him if he gained any kind of thrill from discussing Nietzsche with a naked woman who sold sex for a living. I don’t even know if it was a fair question. Most human exchanges are thrilling in their polyphony, and when the photographs themselves go some way towards revealing that multilayeredness, then any suggestion of scopophilia can be scuppered pretty quickly.
© Michael Grieve, Break in Porno Shoot from No Love Lost
To return to Jörén’s work … a five year odyssey, which took him across Europe, via the US, Brazil, The Philippines and, inevitably,Thailand, ‘first deadly sin’ is,among other things, a fantastically lazy title. I presume he is following Pope Gregory’s version of the mythical list, later popularised by Dante, though research might have revealed that Pride is just as frequently referred to as the first mortal sin. Even if he is writing about lust, the photographs and the scope ofhis book have very little to do with that ‘sin’, instead inviting the observer to contemplate the rather less sexy subject of degradation.
Inexplicably, the book is divided into three unequal chapters: ‘The Oldest Trade’, ‘The Performance’ and ‘The Commune’. No logical sense can be drawn from this division to help the reader understand the conceptual leap from prostitution to the pornography industry and then to a commune in England , where, apparently, some people have sex, sometimes withmore than two people in the room. The only clue to this voyeuristic journey appears in Jörén’s foreword: “ I did very little research before I started this project in 1996,” he announces. You don’t say.
© Stefano de Luigi from Pornoland
So within the messy categorization of the first chapter, we witness, or witness Jörén witnessing, alley-sex, prostitutes jacking up, a British man kissing a Thai woman who, confusingly, the caption states is ‘not a prostitute’, and a host of signs in Nevada welcoming the visitor to its Carson City Churches. The latter strikes a particularly clumsy note, especially as it is the sole landscape image in the collection. ‘The Performance’ then attempts to document the porn industry. These flat, poorly composed images do nothing to shed light on ‘the darker side’ of porn (which is presumably Joren’s intention). For this, we need to cast our thoughts back to 2004, and Stefano de Luigi’s great book Pornoland. Shot in hazy yet exuberant colour, it walks the line between dirty glamour and sinister exploitation. This book’s genius turns on a single image, that of a prosthetic sex doll of some kind (excuse me if I’m not wholly familiar with the terminology here). Like a porn version of Hoffman’s already terrifying Olympia, mouth agape, holes for eyes, ‘she’ lies legs akimbo, strapped into the stirrups of a surgical chair. Chilling. Of course, it’s entirely possible I’m also biased by the dizzying arcs of prose by Martin Amis that form the centrepiece to Pornoland. “Pussies are bullshit” – so his unforgettable essay (originally commissioned by Talk Magazine a few years earlier) opens, not only grabbing the reader by the throat, but also making a key point about the mores of Pornoland– specifically that anal is preferable because it offers authenticity to theviewer in terms of the tenor of the female porn star’s more guttural response. So now you know. No such insight is gleaned from Joren’s exploration, and given that it isn’t, the question – what’s he doing there? – becomes urgent.
© Gerhard Joren from first deadly sin
The final chapter in ‘first deadly sin’ is ‘The Commune’ (I’m adhering to Jörén’s own method with upper and lower case here by the way) and it is just 20 pages long, compared to approx 100 for the first and almost 80 for the second. Its inclusion in this book is unfathomable. Unlike the previous chapters, it does not contain interviews with the subjects, so the reader has no clue why this pagan woman is penetrating the earth with a wooden dildo, or the significance of the barebreasted Julie, performing in Germany with her band Rockbitch. By this point, the only point this reader could be sure of was that the photographer likes to photograph naked women engaged in sexual acts. Which would, I suppose, make the title of the book more personal but no less repellent.
- Max Houghton
first deadly sin
Hardcover,23.5 x 28.5 cm
280 pp., Black and white photos throughout