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Book of the Week: Selected by Collier Brown

Book Of The Week The Hollywood Suites Photographs by Steve Kahn Reviewed by Collier Brown This generously illustrated book chronicles Steve Kahn's The Hollywood Suites series, which is comprised of photos taken in rent-by-the-hour apartments in a run-down section of Hollywood from 1974 to 1977, featuring porn industry models and the architecture of the rooms themselves.
The Hollywood Suites. By Steve Kahn.
The Hollywood Suites
Photographs by Steve Kahn

Prestel, Munich, Germany, 2018.
160 pp., 168 illustrations, 11x11¾".

In Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923), a window is divided into two panes—a diptych, of sorts. The bachelors convene in the lower pane, below the woman isolated above them. To the right, a chocolate grinder twists an axle attached to scissors. Something has happened. And in its aftermath, a bridal gown drifts like tattered clouds.

With The Bride, Duchamp reverse engineers the dynamics between sexes, extracting erotic distress in the modern vernacular of gear and cog. Instead of canvas, we get glass; instead of paint, we find dust; instead of bodies, we see machines. And though we witness events from a window, the view is anything but clear. In fact, not until the glass had shattered in transit to an exhibition did Duchamp pronounce the work complete.

Though Steve Kahn, the photographer behind this extraordinary edition of The Hollywood Suites (1974-1977), may not cite Duchamp’s work as a direct influence, the subject matter bears comparison, as Matthew Simms, professor of art history at California State University, Long Beach, suggests in his contributing essay. Polaroids of bondage and sparse interiors take us back to that image of the stripped bride, bound not just behind the doors, walls, and windows of her room but to them. Making that analogy explicit is what Kahn does so well in The Hollywood Suites.

This new scholarly edition of the Suites compliments a recent retrospective of Kahn’s career. Between 2016 and 2018, curators Julian Cox and James Ganz, of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, collaborated with a number of dealers and collectors to produce the exhibition. Key to their efforts was Kahn himself, who worked closely with the Museums, making available an extensive archive of journals, sketches, and diagrams. Sadly, Kahn passed away before the project was finished. But during this two-year endeavor, he also placed at the group’s disposal more than a thousand previously unpublished Polaroids.

Of the hundred or so Polaroids re-photographed and printed in gelatin silver for the original exhibition, fifty-nine were chosen for the plates in the catalog. Though condensed, the selection gets to the heart of the Suites, not only thematically (nudes, windows, doors, corridors) but creatively—that is to say, the plates document how Kahn’s understanding of the project changed as it developed. What began as a bondage series of nudes became something much more innovative and complex.

At the time, innovation was in the air. Like many cities during the mid-seventies, Los Angeles (Kahn’s home turf) suffered a debilitating economic downturn. Artists turned to nontraditional modes of performance art and experimentation to express the desperation of the city. As a street photographer, Kahn might have played it safe, opting for a more conventional series of images. Instead, he brought his camera to an old Hollywood apartment complex off Melrose Avenue. Having catered to Paramount’s local studio workers in the early thirties, the apartments, along with the neighborhood, had declined drastically over the years. By the time Kahn got there, the building had been condemned—a perfect setting, given the state of affairs.

The nudes that occupy the first pages of the Suites are unlike typical, voyeuristic bondage photographs. As Jodi Throckmorton, curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, notes in her contributing essay, Kahn often photographed his models from the side, denying the viewer his gaze, and focusing instead on the lines of the tautly drawn plastic or the forms of the body’s resistance.

Kahn felt that these tensions resonated with something in the rooms themselves. “It’s the experience of being confronted w/oneself,” he wrote in his journals, “confronted with the feelings of need, emptiness—fears of failure—fear of the light where ‘things’ are visible.” It wasn’t long before Kahn dispensed with female models altogether. The room’s own distress offered the camera more than enough drama to make up for the loss.

The plates in this catalog, though not necessarily chronological, follow the conceptual revelations Kahn experienced in the making of The Hollywood Suites. Starting with the nudes, which, as already mentioned, emphasize the architectural quality of binding, the Polaroids transition rather quickly to images of stripped rooms—stripped of much d├ęcor, stripped of character and vitality. Even the flash strips the walls in a way that makes their surfaces look like skin.

In the images that follow, hanging chords and knotted drapes obscure a series of windows, repeating the bondage of the nudes in their domestic seclusion. After the windows, we see doors wrapped with rope or taped closed, empty doorframes sutured with thread, doors shut beside pictures of bustling crowds. Then comes silhouettes of mirrors where mirrors used to be, as if the mirrors were the eyes of the room, now blindfolded like the nudes. Outside the rooms, Kahn photographs the corridors. “These were part of the syntax I was developing,” he says, “the apartment building of my mind—the rooms that I never wanted to find, the doors I never wanted to open.”

For better or worse, the doors we never intend to open seem to multiply over time. Likewise, Kahn’s images, toward the end of the series, break down into multiple parts—what he calls his “Triptychs” and “Quadrants.” In these composite works, disconnected interiors are reassembled, as Kahn puts it, “to make another whole out of these distinct wholes.” Which takes us back to Duchamp. Unlike The Bride, Kahn’s Suites makes the shattered scene whole again—at no loss to desire (a tremendous accomplishment) and at no one else’s expense.

Collier Brown is a photography critic and poet. Founder and editor of Od Review, Brown also works as an editor for 21st Editions (Massachusetts) and Edition Galerie Vevais (Germany).