"You take the classic porn mag picture," says Dian Hanson, who has trafficked in such pictures her entire adult life. "And the woman’s there with her legs splayed wide, holding her labia open, and giving the sexy look to the camera. Everything is carefully composed. And I can just see her holding that shot going, ‘How much longer do I have to do this?’"
It’s not fine art, is what Hanson means. It’s not even good pornography, by her definition. "You need to have the picture that happened right after that picture--when her legs started to fall and she turned her head and was laughing at something the makeup artist said." That, Hanson says, has the potential to be good porn and good art.
It’s a thin blue line between the two that Hanson straddles as the "sexy book editor" at Taschen Books. She allows a slight smile when she announces her title. Hanson is a tall, attractive blonde enjoying her improbable mid 50s. Once she was a hippie with a thing for smut--Jan Brady with a dirty mind. She happily helmed such publications as Leg Show, Tight, and that perennial punch line, Juggs. Now she’s an ex-pornographer who makes art books from a crazy tugboat-shaped office on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. And it’s her straddling ability that lands those books on the world’s coffee tables rather than hidden at the bottom of the sock drawer.
In her previous editorial role at Leg Show, a porn mag dedicated to high heels, stockings, and that which fills them, Hanson often employed photographers who switch-hit between the art and flesh markets. Richard Kern, for instance, carried two cameras to photo shoots--one for porn shots, one for art shots. The real money shot arrives any time a model’s well-rehearsed game face cracks and "she shows actual pleasure, humor, vulnerability, even annoyance," Hanson says. Those shots "will haunt you and stick in your mind." Slightly different versions of the same pose might end up on a gallery wall or delivered wrapped in brown paper.
It’s Hanson’s mastery of this tension that has earned Taschen’s sex line its unique niche: decadent, impolite, funny, and somehow transgressive in a post-taboo age. Taschen--commonly considered the king of coffee-table books--also publishes deluxe hardcover lines on art, architecture, classics, design, film, photography, and pop culture. The books are lush, hefty, and beautifully designed--sexy, even. Some editions are themselves fetish objects. The "champ’s edition" of GOAT--as in, the "Greatest of All Time," about Muhammad Ali--is a limited, numbered press run of 1,000, each signed by Ali and artist Jeff Koons. Procuring one sets you back $12,500. Some coffee tables are nicer than others.
Benedikt Taschen, the 45-year-old playboy whose sophisticated, eccentric tastes guide the company, first approached Hanson in 1993 because he was a fan of Leg Show. Initially he was described to her as "young, very bored, decadent, and German," she says. She wasn’t interested in working for him, but she agreed to hear his pitch. "I took him to Lucky Chang’s, a restaurant in New York that’s staffed by Asian transsexuals," she remembers. Naturally.
But Taschen said little. He surprised her by requesting a move to a venue where he could smoke a cigar and drink some beer. On the patio of a Mexican joint he loosened up, and Hanson realized Taschen wasn’t aloof--"he was just shy."
Hanson refused his job offer. "I liked pornography, I wanted to do pornography," she says. But about three times a year Taschen would show up in town and woo her. "We’d get drunk, and he’d be so funny and playful," she says. "He’d say, ‘I think for the BEA this year’"--Book Expo America, the Sundance of English-language publishing--"‘we should make our booth like a peep show. We’ll make a door that comes up and we’ll have girls in there holding the books.’" He complained that porn films were awful and stupid, and he could make a great one. "You’re going to ruin your career," Hanson remembers telling him.
Taschen insisted that even hard-core material presented in the proper context would be taken as art. "I watched him grow, and I watched the company grow," Hanson says. "And I saw that everything he said was correct."
George Mavety, the publisher of Leg Show, Tight, and Juggs, died in 2000, and Hanson says his family brought in "some distasteful people" to run the company. Finally, the following year, it was time for her to call Taschen.
She confesses her initial discomfort editing for Taschen "because I knew that now it’s not porn," she says. "Now it’s art, and I have to pick the art pictures." Mere porn was easy: model makes sexy face, viewer gets erection, mission accomplished. But "the one where the model shows something of her personality, that’s the one that makes men go, ‘Ohhh, maybe I love her. No, I’m not just horny, now I’m in luuuuv,’" Hanson says, is more difficult. "And that becomes art."
She says it is not uncommon for readers to write directly to the models. "‘On page 43 I could see a look in your eyes that seemed to be speaking to my soul,’" Hanson says as an example.
Astonishment destroys what’s left of this interviewer’s own game face. "Oh yeah," Hanson says. "You think guys write dirty letters to men’s magazines? They fall in love. They’re not just physically aroused, they’re emotionally aroused. Yeah, you can’t separate your dick from your mind."
And is this what guys want from porn? "Men," Hanson declares in the even tone of a superior swordsman delivering the coup de grâce, "are not as good at separating good sex from love as women are."
What put Hanson, and her subscription numbers, ahead of other pornographers is that she took those smitten men at their word. "Guys want there to be women who feel about sex the way they feel about sex--who genuinely like sex," she says. These letters revealed their craving for an authentic, uncontrived sexual response. "They’re looking at her pussy, going, ‘Did they put something on there? I think I detected real moisture,’" she says. "Oh God. I’d read that stuff and then of course I’d fake it." Hanson provided her models with "stuff called Cetaphil that I use to wash my face. I noticed it looked just like semen."
The clinical details can obscure Hanson’s observation that the male gaze often wants to go deeper than skin. Once she came to Taschen, "it took time to loosen up to see the explicit pictures that had artistic credibility--though really my instinct was there all along," she says.
A photographer like Roy Stuart--the best seller in Taschen’s sex line--can reach both men and women. "He crosses the porn-blocking barrier that’s in most women’s brains," Hanson laughs. His cinematic style and naturalistic models look like stills from a date movie. Stuart’s women "are good-looking, but they’re realistic," she says. "You’ve got a lot of power-play in there that makes women feel good, feel strong." Women viewers, Hanson notes, tend to project themselves onto the models--they can look and say, "‘it’s pretty,’" she says. "‘She’s so nicely photographed. Look, she’s wearing regular panties.’"
Stuart’s 2004 The Fourth Body rose to No. 6 on the Amazon.com sales chart during July of that year. Hanson reports that Charlotte Fiell and Simone Philippi’s 2000 1000 Chairs, which depicts 1,000 stylish chairs, has moved the most units for Taschen, while photographer Helmut Newton’s 2000 limited-edition SUMO--at $6,500 retail--has pulled in the most money in sales. But that blurred line between porn and art keeps Taschen’s sex line out of the big book chains, so Taschen has opened flagship stores in Berlin, Cologne, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles--not unlike Apple Computer, the lifestyle retailer it most closely resembles.
As porn has grown more mainstream, and advertising has approached porn and art has ingested ads, Taschen has tapped into a new generation. Photographer Terry Richardson might be the anti-Roy Stuart. His aesthetic is postpunk sleaze, a more graphic mix of American Apparel and Vice magazine. As a frequent subject of his own work, he rocks a cheesy mustache and ill-advised tattoos. His self-referential blend of fashion and porn sells across lines of gender, sexual orientation, and, Hanson says, it sells "to people in their 20s, which isn’t usually the big target for art books." More so than Bill Ward, Eric Stanton, Tom of Finland, or other Taschen authors rescued from the obscurity of dirty men’s magazines, Richardson is about what’s cool right now. "That’s a book you want sitting out to define you to people coming into your house," Hanson says.
She is quick to clarify that "none of this was made because we sat here and crunched marketing numbers. We choose images that have strong impact, that are interestingly composed, and that are funny. It’s always important to have some humor in there."
And as a woman, Hanson is sensitive to the sensibilities of women--a point of agreement with Taschen himself. "It’s not a political stance," she says of her boss. "It’s that he likes to see women really, really, really enjoying sex. And that’s the main guideline I use." In short, Taschen’s sex line is about what turns Taschen on.
And his taste is a bellwether for the cultural drift. The "pornification of America," as Hanson puts it, has veered dangerously far from the old hippie naturism. "Anal bleaching is not just an urban myth," she says. "I’ve seen lots of assholes. I’ve worked 25 years making men’s magazines, and there just aren’t that many assholes that are absolutely monotone pale flesh." The improbably superheroic physiques of porn actors have "led people to scrutinize and criticize every part of their sexual anatomy."
And another thing: "Too much shaving," Hanson says. "Women used to feel like guys like pussy--if you let a guy look at pussy, it doesn’t matter what that pussy looks like, that guy is happy. Now it’s not just women, but the men are thinking the same thing, ‘Hmm, maybe I better get my pubic hair styled like Ron Jeremy,’ who’s shaved it down at the top of his cock to make it look bigger. We don’t need this kind of anxiety. People are having enough trouble hooking up for sex now. They’ve got enough disease fears. But now they’re going to have to worry about the beauty of their assholes?"
And so it comes back to aesthetics--the thing that relegates one set of dirty pictures to cheap skin mags and another set to posh coffee-table treatment. It’s an elusive distinction that drives other publishers, and some interviewers, crazy. "We’re art," Hanson says. "That’s really it. We’re art."
Which again begs the age-old question: What is art? "It has to be a picture you want to look at over and over," Hanson says. "Sometimes it’s an ironic take on pornography." Of course, "You can still masturbate to it," she says, "but you’re going to have images that you will want to remember. It’s timeless porn." And, finally, "I usually like to play at being humble, but it really does come down to people who have a good eye and are discriminating--and who like sex."