Photography: Rude bits

For the past decade Jeff Burton (above) has been working in the Hollywood porn industry as a jobbing stills photographer, so why are art galleries from New York to London queuing up to sell his work? By Robin Muir
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Back in 1989 Jeff Burton got a job as a stills photographer in the US porn industry, after answering an ad in a newspaper. "I needed work," he says, talking over the phone from his Hollywood home. "I'd just got out of grad school. It seemed exciting and kind of glamorous." Ten years later he's still snapping away on set, but now the 35-year-old is establishing himself in more conventional photographic circles, with the extraordinary images taken in between the in-your-face action shots.

Add together the revenues of Hollywood and the US music industry and you would still come nowhere near the billions that the porn industry generates. Americans rented over 500 million porn videos last year. Conservative estimates put the industry's annual turnover at between $10bn and $15bn - its only competitors are international drug trafficking and the manufacture of computer technology in the neighbouring Californian valleys.

Burton's images are sly, sidelong glimpses of that industry. With a battery of devices - distortion, blur, foreshortening of perspective and careful cropping - Burton tells us nothing about the industry in broad terms but a lot about the minutiae of the porn film's mise-en-scene. He says the work grew partly out of boredom. "It's an extreme world, and there are hilarious moments and beautiful moments and there's darker stuff, but it is also mundane. There are days when you can't stop yawning and it's like, `get me out of here, I just want to go home and do some laundry'."

Market-led, the stills he takes for use on the covers of video boxes and in porn magazines tend to be formulaic, although he insists he tries to "factor in as many artistic elements as possible". But when he works purely for himself his photographs sparkle, like the highly polished cut glass of Untitled #98 (Chandelier), 1998, one of his most elliptical images. Now, after three shows at the Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York, Burton has been hailed as a great documentarist. His use of colour in particular is extraordinary. Even the grass in Burton's pictures, upon which knees rest post-coitally or threaten to intertwine themselves for one more take, has the tone and texture of the synthetic greenery that decorates grocers' windows. A swimming pool, from which a dog is lapping, is impossibly blue in Untitled #90 (Dog at Pool), 1998.

In the porn industry and Jeff Burton's take on it, everything is heightened, stretched out and exaggerated - a world of ersatz glamour where artificial fires have curlicued and overwrought grates, claw-and-ball-footed tables groan with candelabras and tureens, and mantelpieces with carriage clocks, crystal and shiny gold trinkets. Burton admits he is in intrigued by the porn films' settings, and the clash of reality and fantasy involved: the films tend to be shot in and around Hollywood, usually in people's homes, belonging to those connected directly or vicariously with the industry. Burton often foregrounds the mundane, such as toiletries in a bathroom cabinet, marginalising the buffed and grinding bodies of the porn stars. His photographs are rigidly observed. There are many visual jokes and knowing references: the haunches of a squatting actor rest on an upturned pack of cards, which as they fall display all four queens; a sunbathing actor reclines on a towel between takes and all we can see of the newspaper he reads is a corner and the word "cock".

The writer Neville Wakefield, Burton's most perceptive critic, has identified his mannered, highly coloured tableaux with the luscious genre painting of 18th-century France. "Would Boucher and Fragonard," he writes, "shift time and court to the San Fernando Valley they might recognise a pastoral erotic in the pop landscape of reproduced sensation for hire." In another sideways swipe at European art, Untitled #24 (Renoir/Courbet), 1995, while two blurred figures perform sex in the foreground, the lens is resolutely exploring the gilt- framed painting behind them.

For all the white-socked and sneakered legs in the air, for all the Calvin Klein waistbands, tattoos, sweaty palms on bathroom floors and hairless torsos by swimming pools, Burton manages to tell us rather a lot about the city where he lives and works. A city where an inflatable panda can soar above its restraints beyond the tree-line into a blue California sky, while down below under no restraints at all, a poolside menage looks as innocent as a party game. After an hour or two in the company of Jeff Burton's undeniably beautiful photographs, scenes from the counter-culture of Los Angeles life look, in the end, rather commonplace.

So will Burton be giving up the day job? Definitely not. "I just had a month off for the holidays. I'm back at work today and I'm really looking forward to it. But I have no idea what film it is, I just know we're having trouble with locations." He also proudly drops in that he has had half-a-dozen cameo roles over the years - "non-sexual", he hastens to add. And yes, he does date porn stars. "It's like any business, you go out with people you're with all the time ." Nice work if you can get it.

Jeff Burton's photographs can be seen at Sadie Coles HQ, 35 Heddon Street, London W1 (0171-434 2227), 27 Jan-27 Feb