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The Boston Phoenix Show and Tell

In "Porn Star," Ian Gittler lays bare the sex industry -- and his soul

By Chris Wright

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  Yorkshire terriers. Covered bridges. Wildflowers of the Outer Hebrides. The rule is, if you can aim a camera at it, you can make a coffee-table book out of it. And it -- if you are Ian Gittler -- includes fellatio, masturbation, anal sex, and sadomasochism.

Welcome to the world of Porn Star. Although the likes of Madonna and Mapplethorpe have taken stabs at the artsy-sexy coffee-table book, Gittler -- a thirtysomething New York photographer and musician -- has attempted something different: to bring hard-core, mainstream porn out from under the mattress and into the nation's living rooms.

"A celebrity coffee-table book about porn stars; that was it," Gittler writes at the book's opening, "that's what I was doing." But was it? The tone of this statement -- yeah, that's the ticket -- gives us the sense that Gittler was itching to get at something a bit deeper than a well-framed pair of tits.

Porn Star certainly looks like a coffee-table book. It's big, it's slick, it's glossy -- and it's very browseable. The photographs are exquisite. But if you take the time to read the accompanying text, you begin to realize the book has more Upton Sinclair about it than Herb Ritts. Granted, most coffee-table books weigh a fair bit, but Porn Star is heavy.

The book starts out brightly enough. "I'd never met a porn star," Gittler writes, bubbling with schoolboy enthusiasm. Over the next six years -- flying back and forth between New York and LA, interviewing and photographing people with names such as Sikki Nixx, Napoleon, and Lisa Lipps -- he got to do a sight more than just meet them.

"I'd set out on an innocent research trip," Gittler writes at one point, "and now my finger has been in the Porn Star's pussy." But the fun and games don't last. Before long, Gittler starts getting sick of it -- the substance abuse, the sexual abuse, the self-abuse -- and the tone of the book reflects his growing discomfort.

Sometimes Gittler takes refuge in flat detail. "Jon sits on the floor of the set, leaning against a sofa," he writes, "relubing his dick with Astroglide." Or he resorts to the idiom of talk therapy: "I was discovering how fragile the emotional landscape of my own sexuality was. . . . " When a young porn star named Savannah -- with whom Gittler had a brief fling -- commits suicide, his misery is complete. Finally, this big, brash book lets us in on a secret: the porn lifestyle is unhealthy. Really?

Far more daring -- and controlled -- than Gittler's text are his photographs, which range from the voyeuristic to the comical to the outright grotesque. We see a platinum-blond sexpot squatting in a glimmering bikini. We see paunchy porn icon Ron Jeremy clutching a trident, his genitalia sagging exhaustedly between his legs.

Toward the end of the book, though, Gittler's growing distaste intrudes again, and his shots tend more and more toward the brutal side of the industry: gritted teeth, grim faces, buttocks crammed with dildos. As much as Porn Star relies on text, Gittler's pictures invariably bear a lot more pathos than his written observations.

For all its faults, this book does offer us an unusually intimate and candid look at what is -- paradoxically -- a furtive, camera-shy industry. At times, the book is touching -- even a bit titillating. What Porn Star is not is something you'd necessarily want to keep on your coffee table.

Q: What was it that first attracted you to the porn industry?

A: Being exposed to the quote-unquote rock-and-roll lifestyle. I'd begun to realize that it's this insidious style code. Whether it took the form of not shaving or having hair that looked slept on, it was a way of pushing an identity that was alternative to a mainstream, corporate sense of values. But to me, it was just as much a uniform, the peer pressure to conform. When I looked at porn, it seemed to be still a significant life choice.

In 1961, if you went to your parents and said, "I wanna be a rock star," they would hit you on the head. In 1991 they would say, "Let's clean out the garage." It had lost its original potency. What I imagined in the porn world was that it truly could still bring conflict into a situation: "Hey, I wanna act in fuck films." I felt this might be the last bastion of rock and roll. I thought these were renegades, black-sheep celebrities.

Q: Is it safe to say Porn Star is your most challenging project to date?

A: It's my only project. I don't think I existed prior to this book. I was chasing girls, playing electric guitar, writing music, taking pictures. I was doing a lot of commercial stuff, advertisements. One time I was asked by a magazine to photograph a girl who had gained a certain amount of notoriety because she was in a battle for the inheritance of rich relatives. I felt dirtier doing that than I ever felt photographing a porn star. Part of what Porn Star is about is the rejection of getting these assignments. The grandest scheme I ever embarked upon is this book.

Q: You'll probably get a lot of exposure for a first project.

A: It seems like that's happening, and I'm not surprised. Sex definitely sells, but at the same time, hopefully, there's a greater reward here. I'm hoping that I am throwing out some insight, or at least some entrée, into this world that hadn't been offered before. In confident moments I feel that's the case.

Q: It must have been difficult to get access in what must be by nature a distrustful industry.

A: The only real way to go about it was to simply start writing fan letters. Find the names of video companies in the back of these porn-industry magazines and write letters and see what happens -- call people, cold calls.

Q: But they took to you pretty quickly?

A: It's an interesting thing. I'm this guy with not a lot of money, not a lot of experience, and not really a lot of professionalism. My note-taking was typically writing on a ketchup packet, or I would be taping something and the tape recorder would fall and I would have to quickly take notes on a sock. It was out of control. This is a very unthreatening journalist. I probably came off in an incredibly naive way, even to these incredibly naive young people.

Q: Another departure from traditional journalism is that you had sex with some of these people. Didn't you ever think to yourself: "Behave!"?

A: Not at all. No way. The fact is, I was willing to charge into this as the open sexual adventurer. It was a gray line from day one. You know, I don't really want to test my resolve by standing around a bunch of naked women and feeling nothing. There were some hot girls, they were naked. I'm a man.

Q: At one point you come on to one of them and get rebuffed. That seems like a brave thing to put in the book.

A: I think the whole point is that it was not even a question whether or not I would include things that would potentially compromise what people think of me. I thought it had to be said very early that I was a guy who was clearly ready to fuck these girls. She was hot, and she turned me down. Maybe I wouldn't have compromised my own reputation as much if there was another way to show how sexy these girls were. I thought that was a very effective way. The author is turned on, so we can be turned on too. He's turned on despite having been really grossed out by her somewhat grotesque breast job.

Q: Early on, you write that the book was an attempt to validate your own life. What do you mean by that?

A: Twosomes, threesomes, foursomes, fivesomes, sixsomes, horses, doves, bald eagles, hairy eagles, whatever -- I was willing to experiment in whatever combination. What most people reserve for their fantasy lives, I was turning that into day-to-day reality. This was real impulsive behavior, and it was how I lived. Part of me really felt this book could be some sort of vindication of this type of existence. And of course I went in, opened the door, and the gust just blew me against the wall.

Q: You didn't know what you were getting yourself into?

A: I knew. . . . No. You're correct: I did not know what I was getting myself into. But I thought at the time that I did. I was wearing sexuality like an identity, and I thought that that's what I was going to encounter in these people. I thought they were probably living similar existences to me, except that they're doing it for a living. I felt like I could get in there and really relate to their ease with immersing themselves in sexuality. I really thought I was just going to turn it all on its ear by pointing a glamorous light at this supposedly seedy environment.

Q: When did you realize that this wasn't going to be the case? Was Savannah's suicide the turning point for you?

A: It was the culmination of the turning point. In my opinion, it's always an oversimplification to assign one specific reason to a suicide. But it was becoming obvious that there were pathologies at work in this world, and it would be really, really foolish for me to ignore that stuff. You know, ultimately, I would say there is something much more glamorous about a three-dimensional portrait. So even though more wrinkles show than might have been originally intended -- and there's more heartbreak and more pain and maybe even more judgment on my part -- I think that I have really taken them more seriously as people worth examining than anything I have seen before. I'm proud of that. I haven't really heard any reaction so far from my subjects. Apart from that letter bomb I hear ticking in my lobby.

Q: Are you expecting a negative response?

A: I am concerned. For instance, there's a personal detail about Nina Hartley fiddling with the string of her tampon while I'm reloading my camera. I'm concerned because it occurs moments after a scene where she's receiving the only standing ovation in the entire book. I'm concerned because I know she has expressed concern to other writers about things she would like to retract because they could possibly endanger her work prospects. But I still feel ultimately that I am bringing some kind of truth to this.

Q: Didn't you almost give the project up at one point?

A: I don't think I ever thought about giving it up. But I knew the dread that accompanied the prospect of returning to Los Angeles started increasing with each subsequent journey, or with each subsequent train ride up to Times Square to go visit some porn star who was in town. Part of the dread was just owning up myself that so much of the experience had already been uncomfortable. That I was witnessing alcohol abuse. That I knew that drugs were going on. That these girls had all talked about wanting to get out of the business right as I was trying to glorify them for being in the business. That there were scars that a woman shouldn't have on her breasts. I was so incredibly resistant to all the messages they were sending me. I really had a very naive, glossy, conceptual approach going into it, and letting go of that was really a major point for me. I would say I had distaste from the beginning.

Q: Do you think this distaste made the book stronger?

A: Absolutely. I think that unfortunately, being in liberal America, which I am probably a part of, means never making a strong ethical or moral stand publicly. And I feel like I really came to some conclusions that I am very convinced of and that I didn't want to shy away from. A lot of people could come out with a completely different sense of what's going on in this world. But I would severely doubt the veracity of another interpretation that would cast selling your body as an 18-year-old as a positive thing.

Q: But you liked most of the people you dealt with?

A: These are incredibly likable people. The fact is, here I am, this broke photographer coming out to LA, insinuating myself, making all kinds of assumptions about what my access is going to be. I felt an ease on the inside. Even from day one, they would be like, "I want to take you out to dinner." And you haven't seen anything until you've seen a touring porn star's purse pop open and a cloud of crumpled, sweaty bills pop out. The cash that is flowing through these young girls' hands. And they're all incredibly generous. Even in their cynicism they were dreamers, naive young people.

Q: One of the interesting moments for me was when you describe watching a certain sex scene as being like looking at a car crash. At the same time, you're trying to create a work that's visually rewarding. Was that a conflict?

A: That was one of the more disgusting things I've ever seen. But there are a lot of people who would find that to be a great turn-on. I think at that point I was already convinced that I had to show beauty as it presented itself to me and ugliness as it presented itself to me, so I didn't find conflict in that.

Q: The flip side of this is that there are some photos that are absolutely gorgeous and glamorous.

A: I don't think this book would be as powerful if there wasn't some reminder that there was a palpable sexual aura to being in this realm. As much as it's a business, the fact is that when you see a man come on-screen, that is an orgasm. So I think it was important that people see that I saw these people as pretty. One of my favorite photo spreads is the [one of] Lisa Lipps. I spent an afternoon with her in an RV resort outside of Las Vegas, where she lives, and I found her beautiful. I found her beauty went beyond skin deep. I felt that she had something about her, there was a seasoning to her, there was a weight to her. Then, of course, she opens her robe and you are faced with one of the most explosive, gargantuan, and in some ways freakish breast jobs in the business. You know, here is this beautiful girl with this stuff jutting out. It's very intense. She's beautiful despite her self-mutilation.

Q: We're talking about people opening their dressing gowns to reveal the world's largest breasts, but one of the things that was so surprising for me was how little these people wanted to reveal about themselves in other ways.

A: That's exactly right, and that's the charade here. These people are not predictable. They might not mind that I describe some gruesome aspect of a sexual encounter, descriptions of orifices and stuff. That might mean nothing to them. But then I could say something about a certain sweater they're wearing and they could be totally offended. I feel like I'm pretty respectful. I come close to satire with the Ron Jeremy scene, but I still think I resisted making fun of the guy. I went in there without intending to do a hatchet job and I don't think I've done a hatchet job.

Q: But some of your physical descriptions are quite harsh: there's a point when you look at a woman and the first thing your eye is drawn to is her acne.

A: She might not like that. But right next to that [description] is this gleaming, sunshiny portrait. And in terms of a detail like acne -- when I see a young woman having skin problems, I immediately assign it to something going on inside. Maybe I'm just totally off base, but for me, it's not such a crazy concept that her skin is representative of a lifestyle she's leading or emotions she's having. I felt it was important to include that. I also felt it was important to include my own superficiality. For me to come in and immediately begin judging this young, pretty girl for how she looks -- I mean, what does that say about me? It says that this is an asshole New York guy who judges women based on how they look, that his appraisal of what his prospects are for artistic success is based on whether this woman is pretty in a very two-dimensional way. I think I had to make it very clear from the get-go that I was going in there with values that were questionable.

Q: Is it safe to say you're philosophically opposed to pornography?

A: Not at all. I have a hope that 50 years from now pornography will be harder to find. But I would hate to have to start with porn as a way of resolving society's issues. Porn is just a symptom of where we're at as a civilization. We should solve other problems and then look at porn to see if it's still this throbbing sore.

Q: Why do you think pornography plays such a large part in our culture?

A: Our culture has an investment in the two-dimensionalization of women. There is a collective male hatred of women. All men have it. Pornography offers a place where women are broken down, where they've been reduced to cardboard cutouts of femininity. No matter how powerful he is, a man has to turn to woman. This is a place where he can get his power back. Our culture needs a place to martyr femininity.

Q: Some would say porn is a necessary, healthy part of society -- a catharsis.

A: I have to say, I haven't eliminated it from my life. I still find a dirty picture can be a potent thing. I just don't trust it. I don't think of it as a catharsis. I think it contributes to a detachment. There are people, I'm sure, who would totally disagree with me. But I haven't seen an example of pornography as a healthy thing. I don't believe it can be equated with whole-grain cereal and soy milk. It doesn't need to be defined as healthy. Ultimately, I think it's a little bit yucky. Maybe I'm just getting old.

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