Dian Hanson — A Life In Porno Publishing

Taschen’s sexy books editor talks tits and ass and the impact of AIDS on printed smut.


It’s difficult to think of TASCHEN without thinking of tits. Though the internationally celebrated German publisher has achieved much in its 33-year lifespan — making fine art affordable to a global audience, raising the profile of comic book art beyond simple childish pulp, not to mention smashing records for producing the most expensive printed works in the history of publishing — they’re still celebrated for their shepherding of erotica and pornographic material into the mainstream.

Images that once belonged in a seedy back-room bookstore are now glorified in the luxurious pages of expensive hardback books. Even in the modern era of pornographic ubiquity, nobody else out there has the audacity to produce a £1,000 homage to a 1970s porn star. But TASCHEN does.

The company was originally set up as a vehicle for Benedikt Taschen to publish his extensive collection of comics but it’s grown and diversified as his tastes and interests have changed. Now, though he remains responsible for the reactive steer of his enterprise — creating extraordinarily expensive volumes to satisfy his whims regardless of their profitability — he’s got experts on-hand to make sure that every niche field the company explores is maintained with due care and attention. Dian Hanson handles the hooters.

Actually, Dian handles all the body parts. In her role as TASCHEN’s Sexy Book Editor she’s published volumes on breasts, bottoms and penises as wellas erotic photography, pin-up history and some exquisite pencil drawings of hulking gents in uniform enjoying each other’s company in an intensely physical fashion. She also knows more than anyone about the military’s penchant for nudity during the Second World War (more of which later).

Picked up by TASCHEN in the early 1990s, Dian was relentlessly pursued by Benedikt, who badgered her for a number of years before she eventually agreed to join his ranks. “Around 1993 or 1994 I was contacted by a secretary in his office,” Dian remembers. “She said that ‘Mr Benedikt Taschen is going to be visiting the USA and he’s going to have dinner with you. You will select the restaurant and the time and you will contact me and tell me when.’ There was no possibility of refusal.

“I’d heard of him slightly from a couple of my photographers who’d done books with him. So I called one of them and asked what he was like, and she told me he was this very decadent, kinda bored German, and I thought ‘Ah jeez.’ So I picked this restaurant entirely staffed by Asian transsexuals and met him there.”

Given her history, it’s not really surprising that Dian failed to be intimidated by her future employer. She’d already spent over 20 years forging herself an illustrious career in the adult entertainment industry that came about almost completely by accident.

“My early days were in magazines which started back around 1976. I was working as a respiratory therapist in a hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was in my very early twenties and met a man there who — I don’t want to give him too much attention or publicity because he’s such an asshole — I began going out with. He ran a little advertising agency in Allentown and one of his clients was a man who had a string of adult bookstores.

Hustler magazine had just come out and this man knew Larry Flynt and wanted to make a magazine that would be a rival to them. He didn’t know anyone who could produce such a thing so he turned to his ad man who assured him he could make a better magazine — and since I was going out with this fellow we got charged with making it.”

Dian took to publishing in the same way she’d taken to respiratory therapy; with no credentials or past experience, just an unrelenting belief that she could get things done. “I learned to do everything on the job and pretty much just made my way through life that way. When I was living in Pennsylvania I came across ads for work in hospitals — I come from a medical family — and I thought ‘Oh, this might be fine to go and work in a hospital.’ I just had no compunctions and this sort of absurd belief in myself.

“So I’d go to the hospital and say ‘Yes of course I know about respiratory therapy’ and I’d get the job and sort of madly try to learn everything I could, completely confident that I could do it really well. And in fact I did. It was the same thing with publishing; I just came in and began writing and editing, just believing in my ability to pick photos and direct layout.”

This kind of freedom within publishing sounds completely alien to most, but the porn community were much less stuffy than their mainstream counterparts. There were a large number of hippies working in the industry at the time which, coupled with relaxed obscenity laws, left a wide open field for entrepreneurial pornographers to carve out a niche for themselves. It was a time of challenging the limits of acceptability and printing things that nobody would have dared to print before. The market was entirely new and people had tastes for anything they could get their hands on. The more far-out, the more hardcore, the better it would be received. “Just about anything you put out there people would buy, which allowed us a lot of leeway in making mistakes.”

Had she gone to work at National Geographic (as her mother wished) then her path would have been a very different one.

“I did love the National Geographic but it was a staid, old, upper-class publication where you had to have a hyphenated name and been to an ivy league school to serve the coffee in their office

“I’m sure I would have been put in a cubicle and I would have had a very circumscribed role there, a specific list of duties, and they would’ve very quickly found me lacking. Particularly lacking in, shall we say, a respect for authority.” But pornography welcomed Dian’s insubordination and flagrant disregard for authority. The people she met in that world weren’t interested in where she’d come from or where she’d been schooled, they just needed dirty mags to supply to the discerning male readers of America.

She still got sacked a few times though. “We got fired every two years in the beginning. We were just the editors so we always had someone above us keeping tabs on the money. There was always something we’d be doing wrong. We’d be flying in women to do features — pretty early on in the reader-written magazines — and it would be very expensive for something that was only going to take up four pages and wasn’t going to be that interesting for the lumpen average readership who wanted to see a good-looking blonde with big knockers. We were always fighting against those crass, ordinary tastes to try and do something new, interesting and cutting-edge. But they’d be balancing the books and sometimes they’d fire us.”

But this was small fry in comparison to the struggles Dian had to face later in her career. Having taken over Leg Show in the early 1980s and singlehandedly turned it from a relatively unknown rag into a major international success she found herself — as did everyone in the industry at the time — staring down the barrel of an AIDS epidemic. This global crisis threatened to kill off not only many of her friends and colleagues, but also the industry she’d spent so much time cultivating and developing.

“At the time that AIDS came along I was working doing Leg Show and Juggs and the company that I worked for also published about 80 per cent of the gay magazines in America, so in our offices at that time people began to die right away. There was a very grim mood. One of the most immediate changes was that our art directors began to die –the majority of art directors at that time for all the magazines were gay — so it had a very immediate effect on who was going to design our work.

“I was called into my publisher’s office one day after we’d just lost another designer and he was saying ‘Ok, who can we get to replace so-and-so?’ And he’s throwing names out and it was; dead, another name, dead, another name, dead. He just started crying, put his head in his hands and said ‘How can this happen? What are we going to do?’

“In this period it was hard for a lot of people to think about sex in America. We were in New York, where AIDS hit the hardest in the US, and that was where all the men’s magazines were made at the time. So the parties stopped, the events stopped, all the social life that had been going on in the industry at that time stopped and we just had to get down to the grim business of making our magazines and trying to keep going. People stayed good during the 1980s.”

After the initial horror of the epidemic, people became accustomed to living with AIDS. The nation got its lust back and magazine sales kept increasing throughout the early 1990s. The Clinton administration helped matters further by largely ignoring obscenity prosecutions and giving the porn industry carte blanche to do whatever it liked. “There were no obscenity trials on a national level during Bill Clinton’s time in office so this was a great time for growth in the sex industry of America. Good old Bill. It was a time of great expansion for Legshow and Juggs and my career took off. I was getting a bigger audience, more fame, more success and more money every year through the 1990s. Everything was getting better and I was really fine-tuning it.

“And then in 1997 we started seeing sales drop just a little bit. Nobody was too upset but then in 1998 they dropped the same amount. It was about 10 percent each year.” This of course was the first wave of online porn. Personal computers had begun to proliferate and the world was getting itself online — and as with every other publishing innovation in history, people soon found ways to use it for the distribution of illicit material.

“We discovered that every picture in our magazines would be scanned and put up for free on the internet. The publisher would come roaring in saying ‘Somebody said that the entire magazine is scanned on the internet. Someone stop this!’ In the beginning we could actually track these people down. The first person we found was in England and he essentially said ‘Haha, you can’t catch me, I’m on the internet and I’m going to continue doing anything I want.’ And that’s exactly what happened — that was the beginning of the end of people paying for pornography.”

Things only went from bad to worse and the outlook for the remaining few publications is dire. “Men’s magazines are almost non-existent at this point. Penthouse is barely staggering along andPlayboy has been sold to venture capitalists. Industry gossip is that they have a contract with Hefner that says he can stay there and make decisions about the magazine until he dies but they don’t like it. He’s just there as a grumpy, angry old figurehead. Hustler bought up the biggest video companies in California so they don’t make any money off their magazine but they’re earning from their video company, their casinos, their retail, clothing and video stores. They’ve actually been very successful in diversifying, but magazines are just going.”

Thankfully Dian had an open door in the form of Benedikt that allowed her to sidestep the withering demise of printed porn and put her skills to use working for an audience that was sill prepared to pay handsomely for pages of titillation, just so long as it came in a luxury package. Even so it wasn’t a move she made lightly. She was loyal to her readers and had always intended to stay in magazines until the bitter end.

There was also the art world to deal with. Dian had cut her teeth in the close-knit, open-minded world of the porn industry, and the arty crowd that Benedikt surrounded himself with intimidated her. “I’d started to have a feeling that Benedikt was going to feature in my future but I didn’t like the idea of going into that world. All through my life I’d been going out with artists and picking around the edges of the art world. I found that artists loved me as a pornographer — there’s always a kinship between the pornographer and the artist — but the art establishment was mean as hell. They were so critical, so unforgiving, and I really worried about that.

“I had a hard time when I first came to TASCHEN. I was sure I’d have to change my personality, my sensibilities, choose photographs in a different way and alter my style of writing, but Benedikt kept telling me that I didn’t have to, that I’d been doing it right all along. Ultimately he turned out to be correct.”

Dian’s informal tone of voice coupled with TASCHEN’s high production values has been a lasting recipe for success, but it’s her keen awareness of the mental mechanics of sexuality — of what turns people on — that really makes the format work . That and the relentless sense of fun she brings to each project which means she doesn’t take the erotica too seriously.

“I think it works because it’s beautifully produced material that nobody else dares to put out there in book form — that simple, crass view of what should be published.

“We agreed long ago that there is artistry in every subject, you just have to find the right images. You could find the best photos of assholes and people would accept it as art.

“And that’s what I do. A lot of material that I put in there was originally created as pornography, but if you go through enough of it there are images that meet the parameters of art; that are beautifully lit, are nicely framed, have interesting subject matter and are good quality. If you collect all of these images together it creates a very pleasing whole that people can accept as arousing, as interesting and as art.”

It’s a recipe that Dian — and indeed TASCHEN — has found to be incredibly effective. Throughout all of her back catalogue of sexy books and historical erotica the methodology has been almost exactly the same; amass an overwhelming amount of visual information on a niche topic and then edit it into something digestible, attractive and, more often than not, arousing.

This working practice applies whether the subject is Terry Richardson and Vanessa Del Rio, Tom of Finland or those naked soldiers from the Second World War. In fact, the naked soldiers are the perfect example of how the sexy books work. “A photographer called Michael Stokes came to me with some pictures he’d started collecting. He’d found on eBay that there were these photographs from the war of men naked — bathing outside, being inspected in one way or another, having minor buttock wounds treated — but also a large percentage of them just showing off. All of these vernacular photos probably came from photo albums that were dismantled when a man died, and because that group of men has largely died off now, these photos have come into circulation.

“Michael had approached me about doing a book of his own photographs but it wasn’t really right for TASCHEN so he said, ‘Oh, I also have this collection of naked servicemen’ and I knew right away that those were of interest to me. So I took a look and got some samples to show Benedikt and he was just as enthusiastic as I was.”

Though the images never started life in an artistic context there’s an artistry to them that’s undeniable. At the very least they serve as a simple documentation of a side of the war that’s rarely, if ever, exposed. But collectively they span every side of the conflict — the Italian, Russian and Allied forces, the constantly naked Australians and the bare-assed and boot-wearing Germans — showing every man naked as the day he was born, equally vulnerable no matter what side he fought for. There’s a universality to them which makes them inherently approachable.

Similarly Dian’s book on Tom of Finland presents the erotic illustrator as being an everyman; an artist making niche work for a limitless audience.

“Tom of Finland appeals to everyone; to gay and straight men and women and that’s the interesting thing about him. Our female interns who worked on that book all became converted fans because his characters are like Disney characters. They’re so warm and friendly looking and so rounded and clean. They rarely sweat and there aren’t a lot of sexual fluids — everything’s just round and buoyant and pleasant. That was Tom’s philosophy of life; it should always be happy and nobody should be victimised. They’re doing what they’re doing because they love it.”

It’s hard to take issue with that logic. No matter how hardcore the content of a TASCHEN Sexy Book, every single person featured inside is having a great time, engaging in their (sometimes base) desires with a smile on their face. Add that to a publishing model that’s based on total freedom and it’s easy to see how they’ve engineered such success. “20 years ago the laws wouldn’t have allowed us to do what we do and in fact, when I first met Benedikt he showed me a book he wanted to publish — hardcore material — and I said ‘Benedikt, you’re going to be arrested.’ He just looked at me surprised and said, ‘We can do anything we want’.”


This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Printed Pages Autumn 2013.

All images © TASCHEN.