You might find this surprising, but I devote hardly any time at all to thinking about where porn films are made. You might. Actually, though, my strong suspicion is that we have it in common.
It’s about a half-hour into interviewing Sophie Ebrard that I realise I don’t. If pressed on the matter I suppose I’d have guessed that Prague and Berlin were doing much of the heavy lifting, porn-wise, and that you’d probably insist upon certain conditions up-front before signing on a lot of dotted lines in LA and Miami.
Locales that I certainly did not associate with the industry include the picturesque Welsh market-town of Wrexham, the Black Country pottery hub Stoke-on-Trent, and Inverness on the rugged and oil-riggy coast of eastern Scotland. Yet these — along with, to be fair, LA and Portugal — are the places Ebrard lists as she describes to me the four-year process of shooting her fascinating, funny, poignant and very definitely NSFW It’s Just Love collection.
‘I met [porn director] Gazzman at a swingers party,’ she tells me. Her accent is a charming blend of French, from her years growing up in the Alps near Grenoble, with occasional top-notes of English and Dutch. ‘I was there for research, and it was the first time I’d been in the same room with other people having sex. It was … an eye-opener. But it was fascinating, and even beautiful, and I started wishing I had my camera. So I got talking to Gazzman and when I told him I was interested he invited me out to a shoot. Not long afterwards I was on the train to Stoke-on-Trent and this beautiful country house that had been rented for the film.’
(Out of curiosity I ask which country house, at which she demurs discretely. ‘It’s used for a lot of weddings. I probably shouldn’t say.’)
From there, the project ran for a number of years, with Ebrard documenting various Gazzman shoots between other projects as her commercial career began to take off. (The afternoon we speak she has just returned from LA, where she’s been shooting for a luxury brand you’ve heard of with a top-tier American film-director you’ve also heard of. Press embargoes preclude specifics.) Before long striking up personal friendships with a number of the performers, she quickly began to find her non-porn friends’ curiosity more odd than the set-visits themselves.
‘I’d return from a shoot and they’d ask: “What’s it like? Is it weird? Is it gross?” And I’d tell them no. It’s just a film-shoot. I have friends there and it’s where they work.’
Contrary to the seedy associations porn has for most of us, It’s Just Love depicts a world of pensive moments, easy affection and shared jokes (as well, naturally, as some unfeasibly large male members). They frequently capture downtime: a sort of night-at-the-museum approach of nailpolish-applications, naked shirt-ironings, mid-threesome laughing fits. Rather touchingly, one couple who appear in several of the most striking photographs met at the Inverness shoot and are now happily married. Ebrard knows, though, that it isn’t always this way.
‘Gazzman’s super high-end, of course. These are beautiful locations; the budgets are high; everyone’s very respectful and nice. I don’t pretend that this is a view of an entire industry and I’m not endorsing anything. It’s Just Love is simply what I saw, my experience of particular times and places.’
Speaking of beautiful locations, though, it’s worth mentioning not only where It’s Just Love was shot but where it was displayed: namely, Ebrard’s own Amsterdam apartment, a choice of venue that was another way of subverting expectations about the subject matter of the collection.
With the apartment given a fin de siècle boudoir makeover by Ebrard and a set-designer, listening-posts that played themed playlists and recordings of the actors, and a phone on the other end of which was a nude French actress reading love-poetry, everything was geared towards creating a sense of intimacy and ease for the visitor. (This was reflected by the fact that many visitors would stay within the space for forty or more minutes, very unusual for an exhibition of its size.)
For a number of reasons, some of them obvious, It’s Just Love has brought Ebrard a significant amount of attention, reflected in the fact that she’s currently searching for a Japanese venue for the exhibition. But I also want to talk to her about Being 16, which finds the quiet immediacy of her work, and her eye for composition, trained on subject matter a little less apt to raise eyebrows.
The series documents the school-life of Ebrard’s sixteen-year-old nephew and his friends in Amyot d’Inville, about an hour from Paris. Beautifully intimate and natural, the series glows with warmth and a quiet spontaneity. But (as with It’s Just Love, in fact) many of the compositions are so elegant, so striking, that it can be hard to believe there’s not an element of deliberate posing. I refer particularly to the exterior shot showing three boys walking out-of-frame having just passed beneath a clock high above. Are they not posed at all?
‘No! They’re not posed. What happens, though, is that I sometimes see a place and know that a picture is going to happen there ahead of time. I get a gut feeling about it in cases like that and was ready when they walked past. So it’s a matter of having my camera at all times — I feel like I’m going to go nuts if I don’t have my camera — and being ready.’
Ebrard’s confidence makes it all sound inevitable, as if it were ever thus. But in fact she’s only been a professional photographer for a little under seven years. Previously she’d had a successful career in advertising (as an accounts manager rather than a creative), but after what she half-jokingly calls a breakdown in the aftermath of a huge project she traded it all in for the relative risk and instability of a career in photography. Her rise, then, has been stellar. But it’s certainly not been hindered by the business savvy learned in her previous life.
‘Yes, I’ve gotten this far very quickly. It’s lucky, but it’s also that I know to treat it as a business. Lots of people don’t know to do that, but I never forget that even though it’s what I love it’s also got to pay for a lot of expenses like rent and my assistant, and also to allow me to do the other, more personal projects…’
What about the relationship with Adobe? She’s a favourite of the tech-titan and has frequently been involved with them in various capacities. Purely a pragmatic part of being a businesswoman?
‘A mix. Adobe have supported me from the beginning: I was invited to be one of the speakers at the first Adobe Photography Jam event in London, and I’ve done lots since. So I look at it as a relationship. In particular, I’m interested in what they’re doing with Adobe Stock. I think it’s amazing how stock-photography is really changing and developing. Whereas once one might have winced at the quality of some stuff, now the fact that everyone’s a photographer means that stock-photography has been pushed into being really high-quality and creative just to be competitive.
And I have so many pictures that for whatever artistic reason don’t quite make the grade for my website or a collection … but they’re still really good, and on Instagram or a stock-photo library they’re perfect. So again, it’s a mixture of the artistic and the practical. That’s the balance.’
Next up for Ebrard is a sequel to Being 16, shot this time in an upmarket UK public-school: another pocket of reality in which to find the unexpected moment, the perfect composition on the verge of taking form. It will be interesting to see what she conjures from this presumably very different milieu. She may find her chameleon powers and her ability to put subjects at ease and find the poetry in them more than usually taxed amongst the scions of the British political and banking classes. If anybody can do it, though, I suspect Ebrard can.