A Woman Photographs Kink.com’s Custom Porn Sets

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Much of Elizabeth Moran's portfolio will tell you that the artist is curious about capturing the bare traces that piece together human life in modern workplaces — whether a series of phantom-esque good-bye e-mails sent by former employees or shots of clearly lived-in cubicles and meeting rooms (with, for example, decadent platters of half-devoured food laid out on a table and no human being in sight).

For the Houston native's latest project, she decided to test out a similar workplace mold. But rather than snapping the innards of a whitewashed space, she decided to spice up her game, entering San Francisco’s historic Armory building to take photos of Kink.com’s constantly changing porn sets. "I have an ongoing interest in space and sight and how space can be imbued with events,” Moran told the Cut. “I wanted to find a quintessential San Francisco space, but one that was almost polar opposite from my previous projects. I went in first thinking about it in terms of another kind of workspace, but [porn’s] an amalgamation of all of our desires."

The NYU-educated photographer, who recently moved to San Francisco to pursue her MFA in Photography and MA in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts, has been walking behind those ancient walls for over a year now, with just her Mamiya RB67 medium-format film camera in hand. Though the actual porn actors and actresses aren’t in her shots, her images still detect a human presence: shadows of equipment loom without operators against the walls, and one recurring statue pops up on various sets. The Cut spoke to Moran about her shooting process while at the Armory, Kink.com’s “custom-built” sets, and her thoughts on porn as a reflection of society.

You talk a lot about these photos being a reflection of society as a whole. Was that something you were curious in documenting from the get-go, or something you found as you were taking photos of the sets?
It’s something I very much learned. When I first went in there, I was interested in it as a workspace, like truly, this is where people go to work. And that’s still a part of the project, obviously. It can’t ever not be part of the project. I hadn’t really done a lot of research in porn prior to the project and the blogs that have been kind of picking up the project, the headline has been “Porn without the Porn.” And every time I see that headline, a part of me kind of dies. Because for me, that’s not what the project is about. It’s about this reflection of us — everything that they’re building is completely based on analytics. It’s on what’s watched and what’s getting the highest demand. What is demanded is supplied back in and that’s just something I hadn’t thought about. And especially with the fact that the whole half of one basement is set up entirely for custom-building. It’s true production, in the purest sense of the word, and I did not realize how much effort went into it.

What's your general process like?
In our agreement, I can only shoot from 8 a.m. to noon because at noon, that’s when they start shooting. It works out great because I’m not really interested in the people, I leave that to the professionals [Laughs]. Sometimes I find tons of stuff and new things that I get really excited about, but a lot of it is chance.

Do you use your own lighting?
I use natural light when I can. The building is four stories tall and has one and a half basements, so some sets are completely closed off to natural light so that [Kink.com] could light it themselves. I prefer not to use the set lights because then it is very much about the stage and it being ready for production. I like to find the sets as they actually are when they’re not in use, the before and after.

When you walk onto an empty set, how do you choose what to focus on?
At first, my instinct is always to show the whole set. I’m just so fascinated with, "Oh, here’s a house. Here’s another house." But most recently, I’ve been focusing on more abstract images. There was one, just a blue room with window light coming in. It’s very, very simple. It’s much more open-ended. I thought, this one is starting to be more about the site and the space than these other more explicit ones.

Why did you decide to title your work The Armory?
The history of the building I find really fascinating. Its history is a large part of the sets and they build a lot of the sets based on the existing architecture of the building and the existing use of the building. So the dungeon is the dungeon, basically [Laughs].  For me, that’s the biggest character, the building itself.

Your previous work also deals with work and spaces, without the people. That concept also plays out in The Armory. Could you tell me about that?
I’m not a portrait photographer. I’m actually quite shy, and I think what people leave behind is the residue of people — and that can be totally misconstrued in the context of porn — but I think that there’s life that’s left behind in places. As I’m doing this project, I’m realizing how pornography is a representation of everyone. That’s why I’m kind of leaving it people-less, too, because our presence is there. There’s a bit of everyone in that building.

Could you tell us more about the custom-made sets?
On [Kink.com]’s upper floor, it’s very kind of turn-of-the-century, very red. It looks like it’s from a grandma's house with boudoir drawers, really amazing furniture. They have these custom-made wooden tables that just look like the most decadent dining room tables. But then you realize, looking at the center of it, that they have set up a metal contraption so various parts of the body can stick through — so things like that. [Laughs.] Anything they dream of they will then custom-build it. They have a whole shop that does all this stuff.

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