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Xxx

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

30 Porn-star Portraits

(Bulfinch Press)

Private Gone Public: Banal Boobs and Balls

An old showbiz adage says nipples upstage everyone. Which is doubly true of breasts and triply true of pubic hair, leaving alone, for a moment, genitals and any gaping orifice.


In other words, naked bodies focus our gendered stares and primal lusts, reflecting our most degraded and idealized bodies, as well as the shame we’ve been taught to feel, and for which clothing, socialization and virtually every religion is organized to buttress us against “sin.” Concealment is key and revelation the threat, considering all that term connotes from the blasphemy of secular belief through exposing commercial exchange that connects virtually everyone in the First World.


However interested or disgusted we may be, naked flesh is at once the simplest and most complex subject, simultaneously symbolizing sexuality, intimacy, knowledge, and power. Pornographers of old recognized this cornucopia and formed a vanguard that confronted arbitrary cultural mores and standards of decency. Their progeny, equally bottom line savvy and willing to flout the vagueness of legal restrictions, have been launched into the mainstream with ever-proliferating web sites and content-rich DVDs.


These points are observable truisms at the birth of the 21st century. Few would argue against the financial success of triple-X—just witness the involvement of large hotel chains in funding the production of porn. Fewer still would fain ignorance about the omnipresence of skin stars in day-to-day life, from guest appearances on TV talk shows and sitcoms, to hawkers of product, to the lipsticked and body-oiled purveyors of the libido politic.


Yet nudity, if not sexual intercourse, is nothing more than a stripped flank, exposed glans, pink or brown areola, or the cropped hair of size-enhancing pubic shave. Porn stars may form the pinnacle of a certain kind of achievement, both dubious and glorious, but they are also the fabrications of everyday people; doppelgangers, really, of people who shop, shower, shit, and shy away from public view while earning a living, or at least an income or psychic supplement, from an economy of expectation and satisfaction. Such is the basic idea of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s new book, XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, a collection of clothed and unclothed adult performers, showcased in facing diptychs, first page clothed, the second not.


Fans of porn’s golden age will well remember Christy Canyon, Ginger Lynn and Sharon Mitchell, who are all now over-40 and somehow symbolic of times innocent of AIDS but redolent of casual sex. More recent converts will recognize established stars like Sunrise Adams, Brianna Banks, Tera Patrick and Chloe, each of whom has made a name trading on a mixed bag of nepotism, hard knocks, opportunity, and overcoming drug addiction, respectively. Then there are newbies like Jesse Jane, a former Hooters girl, although Ron Jeremy, Nina Hartley and cover model Jenna Jameson will register most obviously for readers in the know.


Heedless of this bounty, the editorial slant of XXX makes it second-rate. There is a mix of gay and straight performers, with a sense of history emphasizing the latter to the detriment of the former. Emerging gay stars like Chad Hunt, Aiden Shaw and Michael Luca figure prominently as does Lukas Ridgeston, who has the back cover, not least because of their prodigious endowment, but you’re left wondering, “Where is a star from yore like Jeff Stryker or his equivalent?” Then there are outlyers, like Seymore Butts or Mari Possa, who don’t belong but are included; in his case, probably because of his exposure on the Showtime series Family Business more than for his popularity in front of the camera (he’s a filmmaker and occasional performer, after all); in her case, because she was his one-time assistant turned newbie star.


No doubt these limitations have something to do with location, timing and the willingness of porn personalities to participate. Also, I must acknowledge a longing, both for missing personal favorites and for portraits of more than the arbitrary 30 men and women under consideration.


The biggest drawback of the book, though, is the intermingled essays and interviews that interrupt the photographs. While some contributors are spot-on, like the web speak of Lou Reed, John Malkovich’s remembrance, or John Waters’s interview with Chi Chi Larue, others aren’t worth the pages devoted to them, as in Gore Vidal’s introduction, which trades on 60 years of fame for decidedly sub-par work.


The overall tone, then, is anthropological, the purpose investigative and the result mixed. Absent the seediness of typically gaudy box cover art, Greenfield-Sanders has revealed these porn stars, as people who dress up and go to work. Lacking the prurient eye of skin magazines and relying on others to write the narrative for his collection, the photographer has turned away from trusting the stories inherent in his pictures. Luckily, his work, while encased in sometimes irritating prose, remains curious, well conceived, richly executed and timely.


No small accomplishment given the intense, values-laden environment in which porn stars perform. No small accomplishment for this book, in which Greenfield-Sanders has made an interesting contribution to the normalization of pornography. Judgment free, he considers each subject in two images and gives space for an autobiographical statement, allowing these people to put forward remarks and render themselves as more than holes, pile-drivers, screaming banshees, or grunting studs.


Perhaps this last point, which is easily overlooked in the race to turn pages, is that porn stars weren’t born that way, nor are they necessarily trapped in a life they consider degrading.


[XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits


has also spawned a documentary for HBO, called Thinking XXX, which is currently airing since its debut late last month.]

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