Off the Set
The voyeuristic rush of watching porn is not unlike the thrill of perusing the checkout line tabloid. These sensationalist mediums allow knowledge of intimacies that polite society keeps behind closed doors. Like the daily goings-on of Hollywood stars in the tabloids, the sex life of a porn star is generally misconstrued as consisting of the fantasy performances available onscreen. What we see is what we get and we believe that what we see is true, even when we know better.
There is a growing trend of "real life" elements in explicit sexual media—sometimes genuinely authentic, sometimes staged or greatly exaggerated. Thus porn performers must grapple increasingly with the line between their public intimacies and their private desires, emotions, identities and relationships. It is this last element that inspired documentarian team Paulie and Pauline to investigate the love and sex lives of those for whom sex is also work.
and Their Partners
By Paulie and Pauline
Aural Pink Press
Off the Set, this collection of their photographic efforts, is a wonderful book for showing the multi-faceted private lives of a variety of porn stars. In many cases, they are in comfortable clothes, without much makeup, not posed, not even particularly horny.
In her introduction, porn director and sex educator Tristan Taormino points out that it's difficult to capture a porn star being "real" because the camera triggers a professional tendency to display exaggerated action and personality. Indeed, industry vet couples Kylie Ireland/Eli Cross and Seymore Butts/Mari Possa can't seem to resist being explicit in front of the camera. These sexual sets make the more singular moments—Sinn Sage spooning hazelnut creamer into a cup of coffee, Nicki Hunter checking her phone on a wilderness hike—all the more powerful by reminding us that nobody is in need of non-erotic moments more than sex workers.
Taormino's point notwithstanding, Paulie and Pauline manage to find some harmony in the paradox of documenting performers by asking them not to perform. The people in this book make their living in a field that usually asks them to pretend the camera isn't there recording their naked actions. Considered this way, it's little surprise that Off the Set consists mostly of portraits of relaxed-looking humans for whom the presence of the camera doesn't compromise their ability to be themselves. The experience of flipping through it is to see gorgeous people behaving naturally. It is as refreshing to view as one might imagine it was for the performers to shoot. This casual mood is rarely something they get to cultivate at work, where their personal pleasure can often compromise the director getting a good shot.
There is a revealing contrast between the boundary-pushing extremes of Madison Young's kinky porn persona and the downright wholesomeness of the tree-climbing, polka-dot dress-wearing girl depicted here. Jesse Jane's pool and enormous walk-in closet lifestyle seems most congruent with what we expect from a porn star; yet even she has a bubbly carefree ease with herself and her partner that is particularly refreshing because she fits the stock image of SoCal smut. Most couples seem wildly happy to be together. To see their smiling faces gazing at each other speaks volumes when one is used to seeing them make more eye contact with the camera than the person they're fucking.
Lending another dimension to the subjects of this book are words straight from the horses' mouths. If pictures of porn stars in their natural habitats challenge expectations, then hearing them speak about building family, their ongoing passion and the inherent difficulties of love and commitment for sex workers will surely blow people's minds.
Madison Young articulates, with her signature blend of academic linguistics and queer-kinky-polyamorous identity politics, what it has been like to spend most of her twenties documenting her sexual explorations on film. Her interview, along with Buck Angel's moving personal essay, legitimizes sex work as a stable career choice. Angel goes so far as to claim in no uncertain terms that performing in porn has been crucial to his self-esteem as a transman, and improved his sex and love life with wife Elayne to boot.
Mari Possa and Seymore Butts complement their steamy portraits with sweet, cheesy love letters. On a more solemn note, there is a heartbreaking dissonance between the tenderness of Lorelei Lee's pictures with an erstwhile boyfriend, and her eloquent meditation on why their relationship didn't work out despite her partner's efforts to understand and support her job.
Now it must be disclosed that I am far from an expert on photography. However, I do know when a portrait knocks me off my feet in terms of telling a visual story, and it must be said that judged individually, few of these photos did that for me. I also know from experience that a picture of an interesting person does not necessarily make for an interesting picture, and there are many examples of that pitfall here as well. The book's strength is more in the choice of fascinating subject manner than memorable photography.
That being said, this collection does something powerful; it depicts the capacity to love among people who are making the porn that people are paying for and getting off on right now. It documents their depth, dignity, and humanity along with their multi-dimensional sexuality.