One of the most disturbing images to appear on the Internet this year may have been Dave Naz’s snapshot of his girlfriend, Orianna Small, still groggy from anesthesia, with her freshly extracted wisdom teeth arranged into a loose mound on her lolling, half-extended tongue. Naz is an erotic photographer best known for his books Legs and Fresh: Girls of Seduction, and Small is famous in some circles as perversion-friendly porn star and director Ashley Blue. To fans, the picture, although it appeared in a personal blog rather than in a glossy magazine, might have read as just another transgressive act. But there was tenderness in the photo, a captured moment of intimacy from a woman about whom it might have been thought there was almost nothing left to reveal. Naz’s gift is the ability to make something like a mouthful of broken teeth look and feel like love.
Naz first came to notoriety in Los Angeles as the drummer for the pop-punk band Chemical People, regulars on the touring circuit that also included Black Flag and All. After the band broke up, Naz fell into the circle of cult New York photographer Richard Kern, whose darkly erotic photos and films featuring performers like Lydia Lunch and Henry Rollins were essential artifacts of ’80s punk rock. He was employed as Kern’s assistant for several years, learning how to light naked bodies and making the connections necessary to work in the adult industry. Naz’s bread-and-butter work appears in magazines like Taboo, Barely Legal and Leg Show, but his artier photographs — more Larry Clark than Larry Flynt — make it into his books, blogs and gallery shows, straying at times into the bleak psychological territory staked out by Nan Goldin, at times into youth-culture goofiness that can remind you of early Spike Jonze.
The fact that he draws this kind of emotional power out of porn stars, for whom the decontextualization of emotion would seem to be vital, is nothing short of astonishing. Once you’ve seen his photos of young women signing their model-release forms, the rest is commentary.
“The photos sometimes come out better when the models are a little uncomfortable,” says Naz. “I can’t explain it, but I am happiest when a feeling of uneasiness comes through in the work.”
“Candids,” a show of Dave Naz’s photography, opens May 19 at the Todd/Browning Gallery, 523 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., (323) 782-9766.