Out photographing state fairs and small circuses in the summer of 1972, Susan Meiselas found that what she really wanted to document was tucked away behind the usual amusements at the back of the lot. “I passed this woman standing on what looked like an auction block,” she recalls, “and I was drawn to her.” She thinks it was Essex Junction, Vermont, where the woman had come out to bally, that is, to help drum up customers for the next round of girls!girls!girls! A few days later, Meiselas ran into the woman in the fairground ladies’ room and began a conversation. That was the beginning of a three-year project, as Meiselas followed striptease shows around the New England carnival circuit, photographing and interviewing the dancers, their boyfriends, their managers, and the men who paid to gawk.
While Meiselas went on to win great acclaim for her documentary work in political hot spots from Nicaragua to Kurdistan, her first book, Carnival Strippers, has been out of print since the early ’80s. Now, 32 of those pictures are on display at the Whitney Museum (through September 10) along with some of the text from her interviews. There is no plan at present to reprint the book.
The photos are remarkable for presenting the world of hootchy-kootchy as simply a job. No glamour, no romance, no va-va-va-voom. The naked women here run through a tacky-looking backstage, play cards to pass the time, puff cigarettes, or look exhausted. Meanwhile, the men in the audience look bright-eyed and hungry. “The only thing that keeps it from being a gang bang is the stage,” a man observes, in one of the interviews available on audiotape. “I don’t know what kind of girl will put up with this shit.”
It’s that ancient dynamic so aptly analyzed by our pomo friends: Women are the object of the male gaze. Or just the object. Yet there isn’t any judgment going on in the pictures. And they’re intimate. They have the feel of photos taken by a fly on the wall.
The Whitney positions Meiselas’s project as part of a new documentary genre that emerged in the ’70s, when photographers rushed to record life on the fringe: Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders (Hell’s Angels) and Larry Clark’s Tulsa (teen drug addicts), for example. But Carnival Strippers is also an early example of women in the sex industry getting to assert their own voices. They gradually let Meiselas into their lives, and they explained exactly why they “put up with this shit.” For the most part, they were women whose career choices had narrowed down to either stripping or waitressing, and they had decided to go with the job that paid better.
Meiselas recalls feeling the class difference. “I was very aware they were making tough decisions about their working lives that I wasn’t faced with, but I was very drawn to the complexity of it. They had a strong sense of self-determination, and in contrast to that you had men with very specific ideas of who they were and what they were doing.”
Meiselas went for long weekends at the carnivals. In between, the shows packed their tents and moved to the next town. She would follow a certain girl or a certain manager. As she got to know them, she got access to dressing rooms. A dancer named Lena became one of the women Meiselas felt closest to. She photographed Lena during her first day on the job in August 1973. That day, Lena told her: “I’m gonna strip till I get on my feet. When I get on my feet, I’ll decide what I want to do. Right now I got no place to go—I’m stuck.” Posing that day with one hand on her cocked hip and the other behind her head, Lena looks fresh-faced and eager.
One year later, Meiselas photographed her again, and this time she looks considerably more hard-bitten. On that day, Lena said: “We aren’t professional showgirls. We’re prostitutes pretending to be showgirls. But what else can I do? [When I waitressed] the men were the same. I mean, if I bent over a table, I had 20 of them looking up my skirt. . . . It seems that no matter where I work, there’s some form of it. I prefer dancing. When you dance you can be anything you want to be.”
In the ’70s, of course, many nascent feminists didn’t see anything positive about the sex industry. Meiselas recalls feeling at the time that “these are exploitative institutions. We should close them down.” But feminists fought among themselves over the porn issue, with the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force triumphant in the end, at least in New York. Then the art world moved into its “deconstructing representation” phase, and artists began questioning the God-given basics, like what it even means to be a “man” or a “woman.” OK, that’s the thumbnail sketch of many complicated developments that occurred between the mid ’70s and the mid ’80s, but the upshot was that discourse about the sex industry began to shift to the other extreme.
At Franklin Furnace’s groundbreaking Carnival Knowledge event in January 1984, feminist artists got together with female porn stars for the first time. When Annie Sprinkle, Veronica Vera, Candida Royalle, and others spoke out at a performance called “Deep Inside Porn Stars,” one theme was that women can feel empowered doing this kind of work.
And Lena describes exactly that in Carnival Strippers: “Being a stripper is as close to being in a man’s world as you can be. It’s a tough life. . . . She’s got 40 guys in there. They could tear her limb from limb. She’s got to control them, keep them back, and all she has is her wits and her talents. The men can’t see it for what it is. The women look at it as being revolutionary—for the first time in their lives to say, ‘I’ve got you eating out of the palm of my hand.’ ”
About a year and a half ago, Meiselas showed some of the Carnival Stripper photos at the Leica Gallery, along with new pictures she’d taken at an s/m club. “It was really striking—the difference in fantasy,” she says. “The s/m work is theatrical. I didn’t feel that about the strippers in any way. They were just throwing themselves into it. They were just surviving it, and what you feel about the women in the s/m is that they’re in more control of their participation. It’s a part of them that’s doing this, but with the strippers it’s all.”
No doubt the reality of any sex worker’s life lies somewhere between exploitation and empowerment. By the time Carnival Knowledge came around, for example, Lena was dead from an overdose.
And Meiselas had gone on to Nicaragua to photograph the Sandinista revolution. “Somebody asked me at the Whitney opening, ‘How do you get from carnival strippers to Nicaragua?’ And I summed it up in two words: ‘self-determination.’ Both mine and theirs. I think there is a crossover of some interesting aspects of that: people struggling to define themselves on their own terms.”