Cammie Toloui, 5 Dollars for 3 Minutes

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Void (here). Hardcover, 16.5 x 24 cm., 144 pages, with 64 monochrome images. Includes a 20-page zine with text and photos by the artist. Designed by João Linneu. In an edition of 750. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sexually speaking, men are simple machines. Dig below their kinks and fetishes and you’ll find a walking talking sperm dispenser. This is my opinion based on 52 years inhabiting a male body, observing its animal magnetisms with wary bemusement. But a quick glance at the headlines will confirm that men are simpletons. Careers sabotaged by lust are a news staple. Again and again male intellects are vetoed by carnal desire. Is it any wonder Socrates (or was it Sophocles? Or Kingsley Amis?) welcomed the waning libido of old age, a chance of finally “being unchained from a lunatic”?  

For those seeking photographic evidence, Cammie Toloui’s new monograph 5 Dollars for 3 Minutes offers plenty. The pictures document her clients at the Lusty Lady, a San Francisco strip club where Toloui performed for three years in the early 1990s. If you’re wondering how in the world she was able gain the cooperation of such men, their transaction was straightforward. In exchange for being photographed, Toloui offered a ten dollar discount off her dildo show. What’s that, you say? A crude deal? Money talks in a strip club. Many men complied and some enjoyed the experience. “I smuggled my camera into work and got up the courage to ask my first customer if I could take his picture,” Toloui explains in the afterword. “He didn’t seem at all hesitant, and in fact I was shocked when he came back the following week, asking if I would take his picture again. This was an important lesson in the workings of the male ego and served me well for the next two years as a stripper, and the rest of my career as a photographer.”

Toloui’s Lusty Lady pictures are about what one might expect under the circumstances. But they also have a novel edge, since few other photographers have explored similar territory. Shot through the dividing window into a small private booth (a special room at Lusty Lady called Private Pleasures) using T-Max film pushed to 6400, her frames are dominated by grubby shadow. The details may be scant, but they manage to convey the vitals. Toloui herself is visible in several frames, her camera arm’s faint reflection blending into the rooms beyond. She is a background presence throughout the book, whether depicted or not. But these photos are mostly about men and their seedy fantasies. 

To appear dignified while horny is a nearly impossible task, one which Toloui leverages into a crude typology. Her men (and the occasional couple) stand at rapt attention in various stages of disrobing, many clutching their hard-ons. Some smile back at Toloui, misinterpreting the attraction as mutual. Some are too embarrassed to engage, and cover their face behind a hand. One wears a bra, one embraces a milk jug. One enjoys anal play. Another grovels in submission. All have one primary goal: to get off while watching “Tasha” (Toloui’s stage name). Ideally this will take less than three minutes, then it’s back to the office. But first, a quick snapshot. These poor men don’t know Toloui’s real name or real hair color, or that she is a photo student, or what she will do with the pictures. They are simple machines, completely subservient to her puppetry.

If the Private Pleasures room is cramped and dark, it doesn’t seem to bother its inhabitants. On Toloui’s side of the glass (secured with metal trim and rivets, like a shatter proof space hatch) are a few sex tools, including a hand mirror, vibrators, and lubricant. On the other side her clients are left mostly to their own devices. There is a bed to sit on with a rumpled sheet which appears well used. If it looks uncomfortable, who cares? They won’t be there long. Time is money here, and the room comes with an old fashioned clock above the glass divider, visible to all. Every three minutes cost five dollars. The clock is ticking.

Various times and sexual toys appear along the edges of Toloui’s photos, providing scenic context. But their main subject is men. To my eye most appear rather tired and vulnerable. They have an aura of despondent repetition, like lab rats yanking at a metal lever. Meanwhile Toloui, appearing in a just a handful of self-portraits, seems calm and professional. The book subtly reinforces the distinction with layout. Men are shown always on the right pages, or sometimes on both sides of the spread. Toloui holding her Canon is always shown on the left (along with two Yelp-style feedback forms). Stripper and clients comprise the book together, but they remain separated, as in the booth. Combining them is possible without running your mind through the gutter. 

“What I wanted to show was the taboo subject of male desire,” writes Toloui. “We are used to seeing women as the object of the male gaze. When I tried my camera on the men in the Private Pleasures booth, I violated an unspoken rule of the patriarchy—that the male is the owner of the gaze, and never the object of it.” Under her role reversal it’s the clients who are on display, while the paid act observes. And the subjects perform accordingly, engaging in camera-ready exhibitionism for Toloui. So casually does she flip the script that it seems effortless. But if the pictures lure the reader into a sense of normality, it is fleeting. I’ve been looking at photographs of all types for a quarter century now, and I cannot recall seeing pictures like these before. On a porn site perhaps, but not in an art photography context.

According to Toloui, that’s no accident. Since their inception her Lusty Lady photos have had trouble gaining traction in the art world. After a promising start, with a 1994 show at SF Camerawork, the project hit a rough patch in the subsequent group show Bad Girls, where Toloui’s work was walled off behind peep-show glory holes, without her consent. A handful of the less strident images were included in the 2010 Sandra Phillips curation Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera, which traveled to Tate Modern, SFMOMA, and Walker Art Center. But her efforts to show the entire corpus, either in exhibition or book form, have faced headwinds, at least until now.  

Toloui attributes her shunning to the work’s graphic nature. “With only one exception,” she writes, “curators have been unwilling to show the photographs featuring erect cocks.” No doubt there is doubt truth to that. In a world curated largely by cishet men, female beauty is prioritized. Penises are viewed as dull in comparison, and an uncomfortable reminder of the male’s limited mechanics. But I think there is more to the resistance. Toloui has always been an iconoclast, fitting awkwardly even within the accommodating eccentricities of the art scene. In a world which prizes well-developed projects, she is all over the place. She’s had stints as a podcaster, animal shelter volunteer, massage therapist, jeweler, cat photographer, street shooter, single mom, and wandering ex-pat. All well and good, but she presents a tangled web for potential curators.

Toloui self-diagnoses her exploratory spirit in the book’s afterword: “I grew up with a strict Iranian father who was religious and domineering. My reaction to this was to seek out progressively more extreme behaviors that I thought my dad would disapprove of.” Early encounters with Sex, Drugs, and Rock (her three pre-teen “life goals”) led to a stint co-founding the fem-punk band Yeastie Girlz (sample instrument: a cardboard tampon applicator). 

By the time she enrolled in art school, an adverse reaction to the prim establishment was perhaps inevitable. Her description of an early photo class at San Francisco State reveals a young woman with no patience for head games: “Everyone’s final projects were on display and discussed at length. One student presented a single image, lit dramatically and watercolored on the surface of the print to symbolize her sadness over the loss of her dog, or something. I could feel my eyes rolling and my impatience growing.” She would soon transfer from the art department into photojournalism, where she found a better fit for her Lusty Lady pictures.

All of these developments are recounted by Toloui in the illustrated zine Lusty Lady, which serves as the written addendum to 5 Dollars for 3 Minutes. With a neon photo of bare chested Toloui and a 18+ warning label, the cover promises explicit material, and the text does not disappoint. Sample passage: “The lights in the floor help highlight my glistening parts (slathered with lubricant in-between customers) and with one hand supporting me I would use my other to rub my clit and pretend to masturbate. If this sounds like an easy job try doing it for four hours at a time.” By comparison, her clients had it easy. “The typical guy would pay his five bucks, jerk off and be done in three minutes — especially the lunch time crowd.”

Toloui writes with equal candor about her first sexual experience, punk squats, and the fetishes of various clients with self-descriptive nicknames: Target Practice Man, The Shitter, Self-Suck Man, The Slug. It’s a rollicking tale. She is an open book with a strong personal voice and warm bedside manner. Her writing is so inviting and disarming that it isn’t hard to imagine her talking clients into posing. 

With its male gaze subversion and frank celebration of sex work, 5 Dollars for 3 Minutes reads like a feminist manifesto. In fact it’s only one of several such efforts to sprout from the Lusty Lady. The club in its heyday was a beacon of sexual liberation which left a lasting impression on employees. Former strippers have written five books about the place, by Lily Burana, Carol Queen, Elisabeth Eaves, Bernadette Barton, and Jennifer Worley, and one other book of photographs (by Erika Langley, shot at Lusty Lady’s Seattle branch). It was one of the first strip clubs in America to unionize, and was later purchased by its workers to be run as a women-owned cooperative.

Alas, competition from the Internet eventually proved too stiff. The Seattle branch closed in 2010, followed by San Francisco in 2013. Enough time has since passed that Toloui’s book can be viewed as an historic snapshot, a rich moment in strip-club history. But it is also a good reminder that some things never change. Male machinery has always been simple, but rarely has it been captured in such blunt descriptive fashion. 

Collector’s POV: Cammie Toloui does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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