THE PORNOGRAPHER, THE ARTIST
Years ago I unsuspectingly walked into a Jeff Burton art show that he’d collaborated on with French fashion designer Jean Colonna. I must have sat there for at least two hours, watching Jeffs images loop by on a big screen. I saw incredibly beautiful shots of guys having sex on a kitschy porn set. But his pictures weren’t pornographic or kitschy, because Jeff’s art work surpasses such mundane labels. Jeff manages to capture the gracefulness in two guys screwing. But he also has a career as a straightforward porn-still photographer, and lately he’s been shooting more and more fashion. With Jeff, art, porn and fashion just never collide. We kept in contact and now we are finally managing to sit down and talk.
Gert: Gee, Jeff, what a sad and grey day for a lovely sunny LA hilltop interview.
Jeff: We have what they call June Gloom, but it’s early this year. Anyway, cigarettes, lighter… Do you smoke? You don’t? Good for you. I started really late. I was 36 before I ever smoked, isn’t that stupid? I’d worked for porn production company Catalina for ten years and they shot all their films in Palm Springs, and then Falcon asked me to go to Greece for a film. And I thought, ‘I’d love to go to Greece!’ It was a film with all soccer players, really sexy, and they were all smoking. I wanted to be like them. So, peer pressure at 36. And that’s how I started smoking.
Completely. But I kind of love it as well.
And do you regret leaving Catalina?
Not at all. It was a bit scary in the beginning, ’cause at Catalina I’d had a steady check, and medical insurance, and I gave up all that so I was back to freelancing again. And you know, freelance in porn is something different, because you get booked for a shoot, but since the actors all have some sort of a life outside of porn, there’s still only a 50/50 chance it’s actually gonna happen.
Were you bored to tears as a porn-still photographer and is that how you started making amazing art pictures while you were waiting?
Well, yeah, in a way, but I’d already made the commitment as a young kid that I wanted to become an artist.
15-year-old Jeff in Texas vowed…
Yes. Actually I wanted to be the court painter of rock stars. I used to make tons of drawings as a kid.
You were set to be the Texan Elizabeth Peyton?
Maybe. So, yeah, I did art at Texas Christian University and then I applied at
CalArts because that’s where all the interesting artists came out of, so there I got my master’s in painting. I had a financial and psychological commitment to the arts… But I was also really hungry and kind of going crazy being in a studio all by myself. That’s when I picked up this gay rag for the want ads, to see if someone was looking for a houseboy or something. I was 26, so I thought I could do that.
You’re talking naked housecleaning and stuff?
Yes, helping rich gay guys with their lives.
Is that a nice way of describing prostitution?
Well, you know, I think that anyone who gets out of bed in the morning is a prostitute. We’re all selling something, right?
Right. So was there a big market for ‘houseboys’ in LA at that time?
Always has been. But then I saw this ad for a still photographer for porn films, and I thought, ‘I could do that!’ I knew how to take pictures, I’d worked for an architectural photographer in Texas and I’d shot for newspapers. And as I applied for the job, I left a note for my roommate saying this is where I went, and if I don’t come back please come looking for me.
Yeah, I was really scared. I grew up thinking porno was really dangerous, run by mobsters. But I was also really curious and I loved sex.
So you went to William Higgins’ office at Catalina for the interview?
Well, no, I guess Higgins was already living in exile in Prague. I’m not even sure why. You might know more than me about why he’s there. I’ve heard all these fantastic rumors about tax evasion, about somebody being killed on the set…
…or some of the actors in his films being a teeny bit underage…
I don’t know. So, I interviewed with this guy in his apartment in Ogden and he was watching some Russ Meyer movie, so I thought, ‘Okay, this is guy is cool’. I didn’t have much to show, so I came back a few days later with some pictures that I’d shot of this guy I was dating. And they liked those, so that’s how I got booked for my first shoot. This crystal freak who was gonna be the cook on the shoot picked me up in his SUV, and he drove me up these rickety roads up to Big Bear. I was so excited, hanging on to the upholstery of the car! Was it gonna be one big orgy? I had no clue! Well, I got there and it was really hard work, shooting three scenes in one day. Well, these days they shoot a whole movie in a day, but still, it was hard work back then. So that’s how I started working. And, yes you’re right about the boredom part and starting to shoot the surroundings. Or, I don’t know…the excitement. I saw all these things on the set that were kind of classical and beautiful, mixed with a certain crassness. The weirdness of disrupting the narratives and seeing things that weren’t necessarily intended… I started documenting that, at first just for myself. I’d completely given up on painting and being an artist at that point. I just needed to pay the rent.
What happened to your old paintings?
I think I have one in the garage. My mom has a lot of them.
Are they any good?
Eh, I think what I’m doing now is a lot more interesting. God, doesn’t that sound awful on tape? I think I need to get a glass of wine to loosen up a bit. I hate talking. Anyway, the porn thing was great. I ended up in this kind of porn family. As brutal as porn can be, like any business, I also got really close with the whole crew. Hanging out with fags, having a good time, and never knowing what the chemistry between the models was gonna be, and how to react to it.
I guess as the still photographer somehow you’re always annoyingly in the way on a film set?
Completely. Sounds like you’ve been on a porn set. Have you been on one?
No, but I can imagine.
Yes, and I was shy in the beginning. But it’s been an amazing experience. In one of my books I credited not CalArts but Catalina for my education. That really defined what I do. CalArts was of course very PC and so on, but I was always more interested in pleasure.
And did you have ‘pleasure’ on the set?
Did I have sex on the set? Well, when I started it was kind of forbidden. Because they fly guys in from other places to have sex on screen, so if you drain them from their energy… But I guess it happens in every work environment. You hit it off with somebody and you don’t talk about it. You had to be secretive about it. But there were of course a couple of guys that I fooled around with. Also I had to get good box cover shots, so if somebody needs to be helped out a bit, I can do that. But then once they really get into it, you have to interrupt them to take the picture.
You mean you would fluff them a bit? Were you the fluffer?
Yes. You know that ‘fluffers’ as such don’t exist, don’t you? The fluffer is pretty much a myth. I mean, people do end up in that role, but that’s organic and by chance. I’ve never seen anybody being hired as a ‘fluffer’. I mean, there were some straight guys that were gay-for-pay and they would bring a chick along, like, their girlfriend, and she would maybe blow them around the corner.
Yeah, the energy gets a little weird. But there are some guys that I believe are really straight but they’re so horny that they can do it. And they need the money. And the money turns them on too. I mean, hello, they’re hookers! But you’d have others that protested too much, they’d talk about pussy constantly. That’s annoying. Like, come on dude, you’re here getting fucked in your ass and you know what? We don’t mind, nobody cares, but you only have to mention once that you’re straight or we’ll start thinking that you’re actually a fag, so shut up. Do your job and don’t be a prick.
Have you gotten all sorts of funny porn awards for your pics?
There’s the thing…we all have our egos, but at the porn awards there was always an award for best packaging, which to me was another word for the cover. But the award would go to the person who had made the paste up of the pictures. Still photographers were being ignored. That was a bit annoying, but, I mean, awards shows are pretty fucking stupid anyway.
Did you ever get offered any ‘roles’ in those films you were shooting?
Oh yeah. I’ve done some non-sexual roles such as playing the jealous boyfriend. In the beginning they did ask me to do fuck scenes, but I had nightmares of having to act in one of the films — that I’d have to fill in. Because that would happen sometimes, that one of the actors suddenly ran off and the whole crew would have to wait until they found somebody else. Part of me fancied the idea of doing it, but I’d have felt uncomfortable in front of the crew. They were like family to me.
Did you always have to shoot really straightforward porn pics for the films you were hired for, or could you sometimes do something more creative and artistic?
Well, no, I was working within the studio system and it’s not really possible to do something new there. How can you possibly do a movie in a day without being really straightforward? That’s why I could do all these pictures for myself.
The first time I saw an art show of yours I was absolutely stunned by the incredible atmospheric beauty of your pictures. The light, the sensibility, the colors…
Thanks. Well, that is one of the sad things with porn: it’s such a formula and there’s so much time pressure, so they don’t really take advantage of the atmosphere that’s available. If they could spin it off, like, take the best parts and build on it… But they’re so stuck on doing what they came for. So what I enjoyed doing next to shooting the box covers was making documentary photographs of the staged experience that a porn shoot is — which is an interesting paradox, I think. I remember an art photographer once saying to me that I should shoot in black & white. Why? To make it art? Porn is in color!
You are shooting more and more fashion photography these days too, aren’t you?
Is that easy?
Well, it’s been fairly painless. I was kind of lucky that I entered fashion through the art world — that gave me a certain amount of respect. Now the work just comes to me and they ask me to do what I do, so I don’t have to compromise. The only thing is, I think in the end they choose the least strong images. I like it when there’s a pimple or a crease, if there’s a human thing happening. But that’s often too outrageous for the fashion industry.
What the hell are we listening to? What are these weird noises in the background?
Brian Eno. I thought if I’d put on something with lyrics I’d start listening to it and be distracted. I’m such a visual person and such a voyeur and such a watcher… What I just love about my work is that we shoot in the most amazing places. Lots of well-to-do gay men who are curious about the business will rent out their house for little money. So we get to see some wild locations. Once we shot in an old Hollywood mansion that once belonged to Fatty Arbuckle. Do you know who he was? He was accused of killing and raping Virginia Rappe, the woman holding the basket on the Sun-Maid raisin boxes. I think he stuck a bottle up her pussy or something — it was pretty horrible. I mean, what a weird location to film at. LA is such a fantastic city… I remember it was such fun when I first moved here to go to the grocery store and see Jodie Foster in the line in front of me.
Do you have some sort of a celebrity fascination?
I do, in a way, but it’s more a fascination for Old Hollywood. Like, these days, magazines often ask me for portraits of young actors and celebrities. Usually I turn those down. Until they’ve had some lumps and bumps and ups and downs, I don’t find them so interesting, and I don’t want to support that young-celebrity machine in Hollywood. I like them when they have stories, and a body that tells those stories.
One of my first celebrity portraits was Gore Vidal, for French Vogue. And Nancy Sinatra. I have a Joni Mitchell obsession and I’ve met her once, but I haven’t photographed her yet. I’d love to, but we’ll see what happens.
What’s your non-work life like? Are you an amateur vegan cook? A bird watcher? A stamp collector?
I hardly have time for any passions. I’m a YouTube enthusiast. I’m collecting old music videos from YouTube. Last night I was looking at old Grace Jones material. You know, early Studio 54, with Diane von Furstenberg dancing and shit.
Remembering the good old times?
Yeah, well, I don’t know… You know, I often think that it’s really surprising, given the job that I’ve had for the last 20 years, that my circle wasn’t too touched by AIDS. Knock on wood. I’ve never lost a lover to AIDS. When I came out and started going to bars in Fort Worth, AIDS had just hit the news, and I just shut down. My hormones were raging and I wanted sex like nothing else, but I was really scared too. Like, I would only order drinks for which they’d have to open a bottle. Nobody knew at the time what exactly caused AIDS. And I definitely didn’t want to get sick from a drink! Imagine — that would suck! I would at least want to get fucked for it, you know? Anyway, anal sex was pretty much out of the question for a while.
Such a shame!
I know. I think it shut me down a little bit in that department.
You never properly picked up fucking after that?
I would never say never. But, yeah, I guess I’ve had less interest in it because of that.
What about boyfriends?
Good question. You know, I do miss having a boyfriend. But it’s difficult. A lot of them have broken up with me because I’m married to my work. At first they’re fine with it, but then, in the end, it’s complicated. When I’m away for a week for a porn shoot, you know…you can’t call when you’re shooting, you can’t make noise on the set. So they don’t hear from me every day…. I mean, I’m a serial monogamist, and I’m really loyal. But when they’re not cool with the work I do, what can I do? I can’t really give up my work. But I guess something will happen again. I might go to the beer bust at the Eagle later today. See what’s up there. I’d love to fall in love again. I love those first couple of weeks, when you don’t know if it’ll be something but it looks hopeful.
And why are there so many guitars around your house? What do you play?
Joni Mitchell. Playing Joni Mitchell is my meditation. It’s very good for the mind.
Do you sing too?
No, I can’t sing. I never sing, I just play the songs.
And you only play Joni Mitchell?
Yes, I just stick to Joni.
Originally published in BUTT 20