Review originally published in the Hipster Book Club, March 2008.
Michael Grecco's gigantically oversized tome represents the culmination of a five-year journey to document the bodies, chaos, and richness of character at the Adult Video News Awards Show, held annually in Las Vegas and charmingly referred to as the "porn Oscars." Naked Ambition is a pop culture art book that the author doesn't want relegated to a low bookshelf in the photography section.
Grecco, whose background is in both photojournalism and portraiture, normally works with the corporate machine of celebrity culture. In this book, he relishes photographing unguarded subjects who appear un-retouched in the well-composed, oversized images. The photographer's lens gazes directly into the eyes of his models, capturing them as complex artists, not sleaze robots. Grecco's subjects are fully clothed and posed in a decidedly non-provocative manner. The outfits are outrageous and the make-up is thick, but Grecco never allows his subjects to titillate the camera. He captures joyous laughter, moments of pensive thought, and direct, unflinching stares from the myriad of artists with whom he worked.
The author assigned snarky titles to each model to reflect his or her niche in the industry. Grecco's first portraiture subject is Larry Flynt, contributor of one of the book's two introductions. After a regal portrait of the publishing magnate in his wheelchair, the reader meets the biggest star of the modern era, Jenna Jameson ("The Queen"), photographed with a male assistant attending to her magenta floor-length ball gown. Highly paid stars Ron Jeremy ("The Jester"), Brittney Skye ("The Independent"), Jessica Drake ("The Hostess"), and Peter North ("The Fountain") make appearances early in the book.
Although the book opens with some of the biggest household names, the subjects of Naked Ambition are not limited to mainstream contract video stars. Grecco raises the stakes by featuring alternative stars like Joanna Angel, who produced a zombie movie homage called Repenetrator; six-foot-five runway model Alexis Skye, who is paid to hawk products in skintight latex and heels which raise her height to seven feet; and handicapped on- and off-screen couple Diablo and Kitten. Brash freelance artist Michelle Aston is photographed twice in artistic nudes which display her full-body tattoo art and shaved head. Over half a dozen transsexual performers are featured, including drag queen/filmmaker Chi Chi LaRue, who was an early activist for condom use in adult films and appears both in drag and au naturel in Grecco's portrait spread.
More than just a photography book, Naked Ambition is chock-full of insider info, biographical information, and quotes from performers from all walks of life. While Grecco was on a mission to gather the most dizzying array of Fellini-esque pageantry, editors Lonn Friend and Rob Hill were tasked with exploring the subjects as artists. The reader gets to meet a trio of Christian evangelist adult performers, a sister-sister team, and even two performers filmed with their mothers by their sides, all of whom discuss their backgrounds at length. Of course, the reader is also invited to gawk at the lushly photographed tools of the trade, from fake eyelashes to footwear worthy of design awards and Lucite objets d'art.
Michael Grecco has produced a stunningly intimate yet never explicit portrait of the world's most outrageous industry. By taking the focus off pornography and sex, he has forced performers to stop performing for a moment, to let their humanity be captured on film.