Jane Evelyn Atwood, Paris Red Light 1976-1979 @L. Parker Stephenson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 34 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the office area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1976 and 1979, in a mix of vintage and modern (2019) prints. The works come from two projects: Rue Des Lombards (1976-1977) and Pigalle People (1978-1979). Physical sizes range from roughly 7×5 to 10×6 inches (or the reverse). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Prostitution, particularly as it has been practiced in Paris, has a long and storied history in photography. With its complex contrasts of public and private, male and female, seduction and vulnerability, and eroticism and tedium, it is a subject that master photographers have returned to again and again, often exploring the humanity underneath the transactions of physical desire.

While boudoir images and risque posed nudes can be found throughout the 19th century, in every form and process from the daguerreotype to the carte de visite, Eugène Atget’s 1920s portraits of Parisian prostitutes standing in doorways and on sidewalks sensitively captured the everyday boredom of sex workers looking for clients, and placed the women in the context of the buildings and neighborhoods where they lived and worked. A decade later, Brassaï moved in closer, making nocturnal images of prostitutes on the dark (and sometimes dangerous) streets, and then following customers inside the brothels, where he documented clusters of smiling naked women surrounding clothed men and the quiet overlooked routines and pauses between the encounters. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Christer Strömholm had gotten even further inside this largely unseen world, spending his days and nights with the male prostitutes, transvestites, and transsexuals in Pigalle, getting to know them personally and telling their stories (of both optimism and tragedy) in a now-famous photobook Les Amies de Place Blanche. 

With this timeline as a backdrop, Jane Evelyn Atwood moved to Paris in the early 1970s and soon began her own long-term project on the life of prostitutes, entitled Rue des Lombards. Working for more than a year, almost like an embedded photojournalist, she initially befriended a woman named Blondine and soon found herself an intimate witness to the nightly activities of a group of sex workers.

Most of Atwood’s photographs linger in the shadows, watching as the scenes unfold. Many images were taken in the stairwell of #19, as Blondine and other women waited for customers night after night. They sit on the stairs, stand seductively in the doorway in long coats and wigs, and playfully dance and kiss each other in the corridor, while the men gather across the street and furtively peer into the entranceway, clearly interested but unsure of what exactly to do next. Seen together, the images uncover routines and rhythms, the nights blending into one another.

Once upstairs, Atwood took careful notice of the subtle power dynamics at play. When the women are naked, they are in control, usually standing over the men or knowingly offering themselves to be seen; when the men are naked, they are typically submissive, lying face down on beds or on their knees, and hanging clusters of leathers and chains further attest to other available roles and relationships.

More subtle are Atwood’s photographs of the in-between moments. Natasha poses in provocative lingerie with a curious dog, and then sits in a bright cafe in a full length fur, seemingly lost in thought. Blondine introspectively looks out the window on her birthday, and exudes warmth and affection when not on the job. And Atwood makes note of unseen precautions that are being taken by the women, from cash stashed in the bathroom mirror to keys clenched between fingers while out in the night.

When the project ended, Atwood turned her attention to the trans community in Pigalle, settling into another long term engagement (which ultimately took form as Pigalle People). The tone of these images is noticeably less tender, the effects of drugs, alcohol, and desperation more visible on the faces and in the actions of her subjects. While buoyant vamping takes place on the streets, in front of the Metro entrance, and on the hoods of cars, the mood is tougher in the down moments, when a brave face behind sunglasses reaches for glamour or the stares from onlookers become invasive.

As a pair, these two bodies of work from Atwood deserve to be rediscovered, particularly by viewers in the United States, where she is under known. While prostitution continues to be an active area of inquiry for many contemporary photographers around the world, Atwood’s pictures have durable sensitivity and insight. They provide an active bridge between past and present, and remind us that some photographic stories can only be told with patience and personal commitment.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The vintage prints are either $5800 or $8200 each, with one set of 5 prints priced together at $30000; the modern prints are $1900 each. Atwood’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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