A woozy intensity surrounds Susan Meiselas’s gyrating images of carnival strippers from the early 1970s. Rawness prevails in this series of grainy black-and-white photographs of women who strip for a living at small-town American fairs. These pictures have depth and dimension; they exude desperation and revelation and make absolutely no apologies for their recklessness. With her lens next to a teeteringly high heel, behind the folds of the stage curtain looking out, or over the shoulders of oglers, Meiselas brings us backstage to a world where cigarettes dangle listlessly and tired, naked women play cards. Her pictures of churning limbs, enraptured faces, and vacant expressions have an immediacy as direct as the straight line between the stage and any guy with $2.25.
Meiselas is able to lay it all bare in a way that is not altogether different from what Lena, Lulu, and Patty do up on the Bally Box. The power of these photographs lies in their edgy lack of artifice. In a sense, everyone here is caught with their pants down–including us.
Unfortunately, the pictures Meiselas made in 1995 at Pandora’s Box, a New York dominatrix den, lack this force. Sure, we get a glimpse of what goes on in the garish halls of $185-an-hour bespoke humiliation, in a place where whip-wielding, leather-clad women ostensibly hold the power. Yet, like the fantasies constructed and played out here, these deeply saturated, glossy color images seem overly produced. The stories they tell are tame compared to the unruly accounts exposed at the carnival.