Essay: The Porn Connoisseur

by Peter Saville on 28 June 2005

A personal statement discussing the relationship between pornography, art and fashion from art director and 'Porn Connoisseur' Peter Saville.

A personal statement discussing the relationship between pornography, art and fashion from art director and 'Porn Connoisseur' Peter Saville.

Pornography and Narrative

There is something very mercenary about pornography. It's astonishingly to the point. The notions of narrative engagement don't really matter in serious pornography. Attempts at them are always inept. Actually, it's better to not bother. If I want to watch a film, I'll watch a film. I'm not looking to pornography for a narrative experience. Beginners tend to. But anyone with any intelligence can't really bear the ineptitude of the filmmaking.

That said, aspects of convincing reality can improve the stimulation enormously. The best example of this in contemporary photography would be the films of Rocco Siffredi. There is a sense of a real-time scenario in Rocco's films. They're not set in an entirely abstract neutral zone of a room set or studio somewhere. When there is documentary quality to it; something that actually transcends the set, it's much more powerful. There are elements of context but not unnecessarily. There is some pornography, which to me is a quite valid art form. I'm not saying whether it's high or low as art, but an art form.

The Mercenary Eye

The mercenary eye is a trained habit. You learn quickly how to find the codes of pornography. If you go into a sex store you are confronted with thousands of titles. People learn how to navigate their way towards what they're interest in, how to read a sort of visual code of signs. It's connoisseurship, but it's fast track. This ability then spreads over to other things. You learn to spot the sexual potential, the erotic, in all kinds of things. I can scan a newsagent for sex potential; that's when it spreads over into fashion. I used to buy fashion magazines for their sex potential. It would quite often be a determining fact in my buying them. I read it all in the way that I read everything. I can't help it.

You just learn to do it. First you begin to identify the titles that are going through a sexual phase. So you won't bother with Marie Claire, but you will try Italian Vogue. You begin to know which magazines are pushing the boundaries. So 10, for example, might have something sexy in it; Numéro probably won't. But you might check anyway because it's borderline. Interestingly, it's much more erotic when sexual material is found in another place. A tiny amount of nudity or sexually-orientated styling in a fashion magazine is far more erotic than the dumbed-down, blatant material in a sex magazine.

The difference is that it seems more real out of context. A girl showing her breasts in Vogue, yes that's exciting. The male psychology towards sex is so totally and utterly different to the female one. You know, Liberty Ross suggesting a bit of bondage in Vogue magazine is so much more transgressive. You think 'oh, she must really be like that'. When we see a girl doing that in the porn industry we think 'oh it's the next kind of work, is it?' Most of what's at work in pornography is the individual's own imagination.

The System of Pornography

Pornography very rarely delivers on the voyeur's expectation. The industry hinges on that; the fact that the mind's eye is far more persuasive than the content received. This is how porn works. Yet with some people, their mind's eye's optimism takes years to diminish. You are always able to convince yourself that this video, this DVD, this magazine that's wrapped, this magazine you can't open, that this girl, this boy, this scene that you are looking at: this is the one that is going to deliver exactly what you want. And it never does. But you believe it's going to. It's always projection.

I know from being at the shops that if you let the customer look at the material, nine times out of ten they don't buy it. So when you go into video shops, they will not let you watch the material. They say it's because it's against the law, but the truth is that once you can see what the product is, you don't buy it. Why magazines are taped up or they are in a bag, that there is never a counter copy to look at, is because if you see what you are going to get, you then don't want it. Pornography is ninety-nine percent disappointing. Once a year something sort of delivers. That fuels the search for another year.

I don't think that there is anything of any interest whatsoever in fashion media now. There is nothing for it to pioneer.


Pornography is a kind of a surrogate for performance anxieties that men have. But unfortunately, it also compounds them. And there is an avoidance-of-other-people aspect to it. It's a very undemanding way to indulge sexual stimulation and entertainment. It can cause problems. It can become an end in itself. Some people get completely obsessive about it. You can completely lose track of reality by conditioning your sexuality to the sex product. These hazards aren't exclusive to imagery that is pornographic, but pornography is the purest version of this.

In this country the term by which something was deemed 'obscene' or 'pornographic was whether the material was likely to 'deprave and corrupt'. I can say categorically that porn depraves and corrupts. Absolutely. Frequent exposure to pornography changes your sensibility about personal behaviour. I am fascinated to see the crime of gang rape puzzling local authorities, health workers, care workers and the police. I'm astonished that they are puzzled by this. It's very easy to explain. Go and look at any contemporary pornography. Gang bang is the contemporary sex style. That's what happens with pornography: these things become really normal after a while.

Fashion's Influence On Pornography

The best example of fashion influencing pornography is in the work of a guy called Andrew Blake. He makes the most boring films, but you see it on all of the most glamorous porn labels, though. It's the influence of styling: the people who make porn are part of the 'trickle down' process and the way that their haircuts and jeans change, the styling of their films change. The problem with this is that it misses the point. They are so styled that there is nobody there: just an outfit walking. But to someone that has never seen a porn film, they are fantastic. Basically, it's like Elle, hardcore.

Pornography's Influence On Fashion Imagery

To be a good fashion photographer you need to put something of yourself into the picture. There are two types of fashion imagery. The first is achieved by what we might call 'the Mario approach', where the photographer identifies with a women, with her personality, with how she looks, with a dress. The other side of fashion is created by what might we call 'the aggressively heterosexual approach'; the Bailey/Donovan approach. Those are the two types of men making the strong statements about women in fashion. The latter type, those that want to fuck the girl more than identify with her, is an obvious contender for a consumer of pornography.

The weird thing about pornography is that for years and years is that it's been an influence that people have imagined was pretty much their own territory. Artists and image-makers have believed that that they are tapping into was, not necessarily a secret, but a relatively unshared image bank. I quite frequently take stills from porn films, quite confident that most people wouldn't have a clue where that came from, or would be surprised by that content, since it's not commonly accessible. It's quite easy to look at pornography and see fashion shoots, the more heterosexual ones, all day long. It's brilliant. There is no point in looking through Italian Vogue when you're shooting for Numéro. The history books, which were once a fabulous source, are now commonly available and everybody's got those. Watch a Seymour Butts film, though, and you think 'hang on, that would make a really great shoe shoot'.

We have seen phases of quite non-commercial editorial in magazines recently. Italian Vogue goes through cycles of cult positioning. The work that Guy Bourdin was doing in French Vogue in the 1970s was a case of using editorial to do whatever he liked and believed in at that time: not an attempt at selling frocks. It is now totally different. There is no Condé Nast magazine on earth that is engaged self expression: that's how the business has changed. Quite clearly, Bourdin and Newton were on a mission to challenge social stereotypes and barriers. Nobody is doing that now. The work that pastiches their photography is meaningless, it's just karaoke. It's the comfort zone of retro or nostalgic. It's familiar. Most of our popular culture these days is based on familiarity. It's good business. Challenging is not good business.

I don't think that there is anything of any interest whatsoever in fashion media now. There is nothing for it to pioneer. It's done. The audience has learnt it. As pretty much with music. It's on auto repeat. I feel that fashion is on auto repeat. Pornography has gone through its phases of challenging moral codes. I think it's past this in any kind of liberating way. My engagement with pornography now is occasional. More than anything, I got bored with it because it's in a lull stage. It's difficult to know what its next stage could be. Currently, it's in a phase of degenerating social behaviour.

Notes from a conversation with Peter Saville



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