Americans are strange people. Regardless of national origin, they seem driven by a combination of competition and insecurity. “Ah-nold” Schwarzenegger, from playing Predator, Terminator and Conan the Barbarian, has now become governor of California. They believe in “keeping up with the Joneses”. They worry that someone else is “getting more” – more money or more sex. This combination of envy and sexuality is one of the main drivers of the American Dream. For Larry Sultan, this nexus is most strongly manifest in the San Fernando Valley, the centre of the pornography industry, just north of Los Angeles off the 405. Here, in the most representative site of the American Dream, the doctors and dentists of “the Valley” rent out their suburban homes to the porn industry for use as sets in sex movies.
Larry Sultan is a documentary photographer, activist, commercial photographer and teacher, among other things. For 30 years he has been concerned with the depiction of suburbia in all its manifestations. Sultan’s parents moved to the Valley in the 1950s during the great migration after the Second World War that was fuelled by promises of cheap gasoline, sun, sand, blondes and ready jobs in aerospace and advertising.
Here, in the tract homes and mansions, with their aqua blue pools and wooden fences, the decor is familiar. The living rooms with their shag carpets and mass market furnishings, the dens and passion pits, faux marble
fireplaces, the three car garages, pseudo-Grecian pavilions, and manicured lawns are the visual part and parcel of the good life a la California just as much as the endless summer of any number of surf movies. Sultan’s grammar of images is based on the multiple uses of these nouns and adjectives. It’s not about pornography, per se, it’s about banality not conjugation. He declines the obvious images of people fucking, relegates them to the side, or presents them, at the risk of boredom, during their down time, on cell phones, waiting around on couches, or staring out the kitchen window. His work plays on the imagination but eschews the clichés. Sultan’s viewers know the houses and the furnishings, and they can imagine the shenanigans behind closed doors or just over the fence. The mix of familiarity and envy is totally palpable: the neighbours are getting it on, why aren’t we?
The Valley debuted to great success this past summer in San Francisco – in a culture as far removed from LA as that of London – at the SF MOMA and began its European tour in Cologne, Germany. The handsomely printed catalogue with its waiting blonde and otherwise empty bed on the cover piques the viewer’s imagination and seems to define Sultan’s perspective. Here is your suburban wet dream, but is it a movie or a painting? Clearly, it’s a Hopper, but by whom, Edward or Dennis?