Wearing Nothing but Attitude

Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
Joanna Angel and Tommy Pistol prepare to shoot a scene for BurningAngel.com inside a Brooklyn apartment that was borrowed from the residents, who watch from their bedroom.

Published: May 1, 2005

In a cramped apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, members of a tiny film crew were busy transforming a cluttered living room into a makeshift set. All the furniture had been pushed against the walls, and the shades had been opened. Dirty dishes were piled in the kitchen sink. A thin, fit guy with tattoos who called himself Tommy Pistol was sitting naked behind a computer, videotaping himself with a hand-held camera and waiting for the real action to begin.

The borrowed apartment was being used to shoot a hard-core scene to be shown on BurningAngel.com, one of a handful of erotic Web sites that fetishize tattoos, piercings and the occasional Bettie Page hairdo along with the young women who wear them.

Known informally as alt-porn, this genre attempts to embellish pornography with a hip veneer by offering soft- to hard-core erotica next to interviews with members of appropriately cool and underground bands. The form first surfaced in 2001, when the West Coast Web site SuicideGirls began to offer erotic photos of young women online. Later the site added interviews of artists and celebrities (from Woody Allen to Natalie Portman to the current hot band, Bloc Party) and then soft-core videos online. Imitators like fatalbeauty.com, brokendollz.com and more than a dozen others soon followed.

Joanna Angel, 24, started BurningAngel in 2002 as a hard-core alternative to such sites (which limit themselves to nude embraces) with her business partner, Mitch Fontaine. Now the pair intends to take the form to another level by producing DVD's; the first, "BurningAngel.com: the Movie," was released for sale online on April 1 and sells for $20.

Shot on a shoestring budget of $4,000, the film, which stars Ms. Angel (her stage name), is a series of hard-core sex scenes strung together without benefit of a plot. It burnishes its hipster credentials by incorporating music by the Brooklyn band Turing Machine and Tim Armstrong of Rancid. Interviews with bands like Dillinger Escape Plan and My Chemical Romance are interspersed with the sex.

Holding up the DVD's cover, on which she appears with her back arched and wearing nothing but a few straps around her hips that suggest a thong, Ms. Angel described the BurningAngel ethos as "a unity of sex and rock 'n' roll" but quickly qualified the statement: "Porn is more punk than most punk music," she concluded.

For Mr. Fontaine, 26, who does not appear on the Web site or in the BurningAngel video, the reasons he became a pornographer are less complex.

"We were sick of blond hair and breast implants," he said. "We wanted to put our sexual fantasies on video."

Hard-core pornography is obviously not the typical career choice for an English major from Rutgers University, but Ms. Angel, with a yearbook's worth of quotations tattooed across her 4-foot-11 frame, from Kurt Vonnegut ("So it goes") to a paraphrase of Margaret Atwood ("Touch me and you will burn"), refuses to acknowledge any difference between what she does and composing poetry.

"Some people make music, others paint, I make porn," she said, though she admitted that she had never seen a pornographic video until Mr. Fontaine, a Rutgers classmate, suggested that they start a pornography company.

Still, Ms. Angel is in no way a pioneer in her field; there seem to be plenty of women who, rather than struggle to get published in The Paris Review or written up in ArtNews, have instead channeled their creative ambitions into erotica. One magazine, Sweet Action, was started by two women in January 2004 and features interviews with musicians and nude photographs of the scrawny bohemian boys typical of the alt-porn genre.

Missy Suicide, the founder of SuicideGirls.com, said she sees "nudity as self-expression," though she insists her site, which consists mainly of young women posing topless or - for viewers who pay the membership fee (starting at $9 a month) - fully nude, is not pornography. "We're pinups," she said. "We never use the word porn. We've worked hard to distinguish ourselves."

Similarly, selling pornography as art has worked to Ms. Angel's advantage in recruiting models and actors to her site. So far more than 100 women from 18 to 25 have appeared on the Web site, and nearly two dozen actors appear in online videos and on the DVD. Rebecca Lossin, a BurningAngel model and recent Bard College graduate who met Ms. Angel through a mutual friend, said she posed nude because it is a form of artistic expression, though the money (Ms. Lossin said she was paid $200) "helped provide the means to work on my artistic endeavors, without having to break my back."

Ms. Angel won't divulge how much she pays her actors, who perform XXX acts - often with multiple partners - but claims that no one ever feels exploited.

"We treat everyone with respect, like friends," she said. "It's hard work, but everyone has fun." Ms. Angel calls the women she works with "my girls" and takes pride in being a female executive in an industry dominated by men.

Gavin McInnes, a founder of Vice magazine, a trendsetting publication that has published pornography reviews, might argue that she's kidding herself.

"It's a candy-coated version of real porn," he said of alt-porn. "It's hard to say this without sounding like a first-year university feminist."

Katie Roiphe, an author who often writes about women's issues, was more sanguine on the subject. "Younger women today are growing more comfortable with their sexuality," she said, "and it makes perfect sense that they'd want to create a hip corner of the pornographic universe where they can express themselves."

Art, however, is just a part of BurningAngel's commercial ambitions. "There are millions of dollars being made in L.A. every year on porn," Ms. Angel said, "and I'd like to see some of that money coming to New York. I'd like to start an empire here."

Whether that is a viable goal is impossible to know, though there are signs that alt-porn as a genre has some traction. In Los Angeles, Eon McKai, the name used by a Los Angeles porn auteur, released his debut alt-porn film "Art School Sluts" last November. It was distributed by Hustler's VCA Pictures and remains one of its strongest sellers. The follow-up, "Kill Girl Kill," was released in April.

Missy Suicide said her Web site averages one million weekly visitors, and though she would not discuss sales figures, she said it is profitable. As for BurningAngel, Ms. Angel said it averages more than 250,000 monthly visitors who can preview the nude photographs and see interviews with members of hard-core punk and indie bands, and several thousand members who pay fees starting at $10 for a 30-day membership for full access to the nude photographs and hard-core video.

But the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, whose art book "XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits," features nude photos of adult film icons like Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy, said the creators of alt-porn are "late to the trend," and pointed out that hip-hop first took pornography mainstream and made it cool. "They were the first to incorporate porn into the music, the videos and the aesthetic, and have since influenced marketers and artists within almost every industry," he said.

He acknowledged, however, that companies like BurningAngel will nevertheless help define the future of pornography, which is becoming a niche industry. "The women I photographed in my book, like Jenna Jameson and Nina Hartley, were the pioneers, but porn stars are disappearing," he said. "The Internet has created a different world where the abundance of choice will generate fewer stars like Jenna."

But Mr. McInnes said he believed there would never be a viable market for alt-porn. "People don't want punk porn," he said. "There's just no market for it because that's not what porn is about. Porn is not cool."

Ms. Angel said she sees BurningAngel as an alternative to an office job. When asked what people's reactions have been to her career choice, she said: "People either think it's really cool or really gross. Living in New York City, it's hard to discuss that this is normal. People either think you're a goddess or don't want anything to do with you at all."