It was an art project that had roots in a failed S&M venture.
For the late photographer Steve Kahn, “The Hollywood Suites,” a series of images that chronicled, in conceptual ways, the interiors of a dilapidated no-tell hotel on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, all started with a bondage magazine.
It was the 1970s. The U.S. economy was in a freefall. The price of oil was skyrocketing. Kahn and a couple of artist pals — sculptor Robert Overby and painter Robert Blue — decided to produce a series of fetish magazines as a way of scaring up a little cash.
Overby, an artist known for his delicate latex casts of abandoned buildings, then had a studio in a gritty part of Hollywood next to a printer that produced S&M publications. The three artists contracted the company to print a magazine they titled Photo-Bondage. It featured photography of women in various bondage positions accompanied by a fictional text, written by Kahn.
The project didn’t go quite as planned.
“The publisher ended up absconding with all the money,” says curator Janna Keegan, who organized a show around the subsequent “Hollywood Suites” series now on view at San Francisco’s De Young Museum. The artists’ careers as fetish publishers came to an abrupt end.
It was just as well. Kahn had trouble tying the knots used in bondage. “A lot of what that photography is about is the artistry of the knots,” notes Keegan. “He had to call a friend to come in and do the specialty knots.”
Kahn’s Photo-Bondage project inspired more conceptual shoots in which he used bondage models in other ways, sometimes as curious props — a woman bound on top of a wood dresser or draped over a studded leather chair — and toyed with the environments frequently seen in low-rent bondage photographs. In Kahn’s case, that was principally the Villa Constance, a 1930 apartment house at 5244 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. Today it’s a parking lot for Raleigh Studios, but in the ’70s it was breathing its last gasps as a warren of beat-up rooms for rent, many by the hour.
It was “artier and stranger” than regular bondage photography, says Keegan. “It wasn’t sexual in the same explicit way.” A handheld flash gave his images the blown-out look of bad evidence photographs.
As the series he started in 1974 progressed, Kahn turned his focus away from the models and toward the rooms: banal hotel art, mismatched curtains, peeling window frames. Although he had always been attuned to those details in his work, the tipping point came when a model failed to show up for a session one day. Kahn therefore trained his camera exclusively on the room.
“Hotel room décor is so anonymous,” says Keegan. “It has these echoes of familiarity — a bed, a lamp, a chair. But if you really look at it ... it could be anywhere.”
Kahn took these settings and made them feel relentlessly strange.
Some of that came from small interventions he would execute in these spaces, tying curtains together in tight knots or binding doors with rope, as if to prevent any escape from this last-chance hotel. And there was also his process. Kahn would create an initial image with a Polaroid camera, then reshoot that Polaroid print using film. The result: photographs that appear flat and grainy, blurring details and heightening mood.
In later works snapped at the Villa Constance, he shot fragments of rooms and hallways and then assembled the photos with some of the images in reverse — taking familiar spaces and transforming them into something off-kilter.
They become simplified geometric patterns, says Keegan, evoking the work of figures like the early 20th century Russian constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko, who employed shape in psychological ways. Kahn “takes these images and starts flipping them around, and you have this eerie effect.”
Collectively, “The Hollywood Suites” convey a sense of isolation and entrapment, of being surrounded by traces of humanity — someone had to choose those flouncy floral curtains for the by-the-hour hotel — except that humanity always feels as if it’s out of reach.
Part of this likely came from Kahn’s artistic strategy.
“He almost treated the Villa Constance as his studio, and he’d go there every day and do his works,” says Keegan. “He wanted to isolate himself to create a work. He would go into these rooms and not let himself out until he had created a work.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Kahn took an unusual path into art. He didn’t study art in graduate school, pursuing a doctorate in physics instead. But he dropped out, preferring to study flamenco guitar in Andalusia, Spain. He landed back in L.A. in the late 1960s and made a living by, among other things, working as a stringer for magazines such as Life and Newsweek. On the side, he made art.
Like a lot of photographers, he began by shooting on the street. And, like a lot of photographers of that era, by the 1970s, he started using the medium in a more experimental fashion, often in ways that questioned the nature of photography itself. He would take pictures as he tossed a camera through the air, and in one series, published in 1973 as the artist book “Stasis,” he explored the undefined space created by blurs. His work did not go unnoticed, earning him a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Young Talent Purchase Award from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
But art careers are famously difficult and, in 1986, Kahn moved to New York to pursue a career in commercial photography. Half a dozen years ago, he returned to California — this time, Berkeley — and began to show work from his artistic archives. In the spring, an exhibition showing images of corridors opened at Casemore Kirkeby gallery in San Francisco. Then came the fall opening of his current de Young solo exhibition, which is accompanied by a worthwhile catalog, also titled “Hollywood Suites.”
Kahn, unfortunately, didn’t live to see these. The artist died of cancer in February at age 74.
But he left behind a striking record of imagery at a time when photography was in the process of being redefined. Not to mention an unusual record of L.A. in the ’70s. A despairing hotel with its sad furnishings, all serving as counterpoint to the hopeful title of the series, with its evocations of show business success.
That failed bondage magazine? It wasn’t a failure. It was a steppingstone to something much bigger.
“Steve Kahn: The Hollywood Suites”
Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco
When: Through March 31