Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

Naked ambition: blurring the line between creator and consumer in the porn industry

As pornography has moved from the public to the private sphere, stage sets have increasingly mirrored the domestic settings in which it is consumed

Jo broughton ballon set jo broughton

Jo broughton ballon set jo broughton


Photograph from Jo Broughton’s Empty Porn Sets series (1995-2007). As a cleaner, Broughton was able to shoot the scenery after the porn stars and crew had gone home

Pornography, or at least the pornographic impulse, invented cinema. According to scholar Linda Williams, there are two drives that led to its invention: the desire to see and the desire to know the human body, more specifically the desire to know the mechanics of its movement. The emergence of the kinetograph, the kinetoscope and the cinematograph and their entry into circulation in the mid-19th century had the effect of broadening what is visible. Those optical devices expanded the possibilities of the naked eye, in order to go beyond its boundaries, and in their endeavour made it possible to revisit images after their recording, to capture movement and reinvent apprehensible distances. In Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion plates (1887), he dresses up the female body in a different aesthetic register to the male counterpart, codified in the voyeuristic and fetishising gaze. This Foucauldian implantation of perversions was inscribed in the new cinematographic apparatus: these ways of seeing and looking at a woman’s body would be turned into something normal and natural.

The human body plays a central role in film representation, and part of its language is devoted to it, taking it as a space unit measurement. Whereas the frame demarcates the space to be shot by the lens, distinguishing in-field (anything in front of it), and out-of-field (all that is excised), the openness of the framing defines the distance between bodies. All images that make up a ‘take’ are classified according to a gradation, which spans all the way from the absence of the body in the extreme long shot, used to anchor space, and the utmost closeness of the close-up.

‘Sets resembling public places aim to arouse the viewer using a virtual subversion of the norm, while private environments reinforce it.’

Classifying a genre such as pornography, in its hard definition, depends on two of the aforementioned factors. On one side, it is defined based on how it chooses to portray the body and, on the other, on the distance from what is portrayed. The pornographic film admits and pursues nudity, exhibiting that which most genres relegate to off-field – sexual organs – and in so doing attempts to get closer through close-ups and extreme close-ups, shooting sex action which other genres either simulate at a distance or leave out altogether. The desire to see is translated in porn as a profusion of short takes on certain body parts, as a centrality of genitalia and the choice of sex positions which allow for the highest visibility of bodies and organs.

The spatial arrangement of pornographic film includes both the place where images are reproduced for the public, and the place where the sex act occurs. The spectatorial body, in which an effect of mimesis and contagion of the sexual arousal of actors and actresses is sought, is organised around an architectural space designed for voyeuristic consumption and scopophilic pleasure. These spaces for the viewing of pornography film have shifted according to technological change, bringing about three ages of porn: the collective informal viewings of stag films in European brothels from the early 20th century; screenings at public cinemas from the late ’60s and early ’70s aimed at both male and female audiences; and the shift from the public sphere to the private with the advent of video technology in the mid-’80s, moving pornography progressively to the small screen and bringing an end to collective public viewing.



Created in 1887, Eadweard Muybridge’s Nude Woman Getting into Bed, from the Animal Locomotion series. A sequence of photographs to show incremental movement made revisiting images possible and invented a new way of looking at a woman’s body

On the other hand, the relationship between pornography’s bodies-in-pleasure and the in-field space – whether a decoration set fleeing reality or one that attempts to invoke the commonplace – contributes to its objective to arouse the viewer sexually. Desire seeks to construct itself through the set. In her photographic series Empty Porn Sets (1995-2007), Jo Broughton replicates both familiar spaces and dreamier scenes with a tenuous connection to reality. Surreal backdrops attempt to dissolve the link to what is known, indulging a freer imagination using familiar objects or references such as coloured balloons, massive gift boxes, icy caves, or futuristic chairs. Alternatively, depicting public spaces such as schools or hospitals transgresses the taboo of sex, while resorting to the bedroom or other domestic spaces – those spaces codified as private – reaffirms the place where sex is socially consigned. Sets resembling public places aim to arouse the viewer using a virtual subversion of the norm, while private environments reinforce it. The average viewer recognises these domestic pleasure-staging spaces as their own.

The choice of architectural space is equally relevant in amateur porn. This subgenre, which emerged with the release of 8mm film and portable cameras, was eventually developed with video technology and the internet, which offer many distribution advantages compared with older formats. This typology makes it possible for non-professional actors to film at home. Filming not a studio-made replica of domestic settings, but an authentic one, is an incentive for the viewer, who is aroused through the aesthetic experience of the real.

‘The bedroom amounts to one of the last remaining bastions for the exploration of the sexual or indecorous; a space characterised by a number of rules which allow certain freedoms’

Gonzo porn, which emerged in the 1990s, inherits from amateur porn its documentary filiation, which antagonises California-style traditional porn, in which a certain aesthetic canon of the bodies prevails, using artificial lighting and backdrops and a certain volition of style in its filming. Thus, the gonzo approach favours natural lighting, does without make-up, uses a hand-held camera, and naturalist settings. In this way, gonzo appropriates the aesthetics of amateur porn, making it suitable for the professional market, drawing value from its seeming lack of artifice. Since then, the exchanges between professionalisation and amateurism have been recurrent and two-way, blurring the line separating them.

There is a disposition for pornographic sets which replicate the viewer’s reception spaces. As adult movie theatres were being shut down and audiovisual porn transitioned from a public space towards a domestic, private one – starting with video and later on with the internet – staging domestic spaces has become increasingly common.With the advent of the digitally connected room, images of nude subjects and sexual action in front of the webcam will proliferate as an image which doubles as a mirror of that of the consumer. Whereas amateur porn rendered selfconsumption possible, inscribing an additional moment of pleasure in the viewing of the sexual act, cybersex consents to an instant exchange of pornographic images in which one is at once a subject of pornography and pornographic consumer of the other. This narcissistic retraction, through which pleasure is extracted from self-contemplation, uses the domestic space, and more typically the bedroom, as its place of enunciation. The bedroom amounts to, within the existing social order, one of the last remaining bastions for the exploration of the sexual or indecorous; a space characterised by a number of rules which allow for certain moral freedoms, as an individual shelter secluded from the group. It is the last architectural boundary before entering the body and getting lost in the uncontrollable freedom of the imaginary: a preamble to the inner world.

Circuscinema frenchnympho timessq 4k 1986

Circuscinema frenchnympho timessq 4k 1986


New York’s Times Square, once the epitome of public consumption of pornography, gave way to the shift to the private sphere that began with the advent of video technology in the 1980s and continues today with the move to webcamming and the consumer as performer

Pornography, being a device which aspires to the expression and inscription of desires, has in the profilmic space a tool which contributes to sexual arousal, conferring a narrative context on bodies that, no matter how minimally, relates to what we desire. Profanation of the norm takes over public spaces, penetrating the space of the other and the flight from reality towards fantasy worlds.

Likewise, the narrowing-down of pornography’s imagination – the split image of the receiver who observes and/or partakes in domestic settings – is presented as an outcome of the banishment of the pornographic image from the public realm. The lack of an other at the time of its reception seems to entail the impossibility of the other in the image. In the age of individualism, the venture of pornography is both to spatially isolate the consumer in the viewing and to provide them with an image for pleasure which is increasingly self-referential, pushing onanism closer to mise en abyme.

Jo broughton set

Jo broughton set


Photograph from Jo Broughton’s Empty Porn Sets series (1995-2007)

This piece is featured in the AR March 2019 issue on Sex + Women in Architecture awards – click here to purchase your copy today