Scarlet Muse @Daniel Cooney

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of 54 black and white and color photographs by 24 different photographers, variously framed and matted,  and hung against white and grey walls in the two room gallery space and the office area.

The following artists/photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their processes and dates as background:

  • Merry Alpern: 1 gelatin silver print, 1994
  • Anonymous: 1 stereo albumen print, c1860
  • Chris Arnade: 3 digital c-prints, 2012, 2013
  • Eugène Atget: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1920s/later, 1924-1925/later
  • George Awde: 2 archival pigment prints, 2011, 2012
  • Amos Badertscher: 1 gelatin silver print, 1979
  • E. J. Bellocq: 3 gelatin silver prints, c1912/later
  • Bruno-Auguste Braquehais: 1 stereo daguerreotype in passe-partout mount, c1850s
  • Brassaï: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932/later
  • Larry Clark: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1980, 1981
  • Jeff Cowen: 1 gelatin silver print, 1988
  • Philip-Lorca diCorcia: 1 chromogenic print, 1990-1992
  • Danny Fields: 6 Polaroids, c1970s
  • Benjamin Fredrikson: 2 Polaroids, 2008, 2009
  • Anthony Friedkin: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1970, 1971
  • Jane Hilton: 5 chromogenic prints, 2012
  • Leon Levinstein: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1973
  • Danny Lyon: 1 gelatin silver print, 1972
  • Malerie Marder: 1 archival pigment print, 2008-2013
  • Mary Ellen Mark: 1 gelatin silver print, 1983
  • Bob Mizer: 1 Fujiflex print, 1972
  • Pedro Slim: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1997
  • Scot Sothern: 2 gelatin silver prints, late 1980s
  • Christer Strömholm: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1960, 1961, 1962

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Almost by definition, the typical summer group show isn’t particularly memorable. Designed to be lighter fare than the usual run of solo shows and other serious matters, it generally gathers together a grab bag of material (often with a heavy dose of the gallery stable) under a catchy summer-themed title, and then heads for the beach, in effect conceding that few actual collectors will be coming by to visit. But every year, there are a few standout group shows that stubbornly fight against the impulse to dumb it down. Scarlet Muse is one of these quiet outliers, a show worth a detour for, even when the furnace-like heat simmers off the pavement.

At first glance, prostitution seems like the kind of titillating subject tailor-made for a summer photography show, a curatorial theme certain to be filled with full of sexy bodies and nudity to please the masses. And while Scarlet Muse has its share of explicit eroticism, it’s a balanced study of sex workers across the history of the medium (both male and female) with much more nuance and personal empathy than we might normally have expected.

What I like best about this show is the many ways it can be divided. We can see prostitution through a chronological lens, moving back and forth between the 1850s and the present, each discrete stop along the timeline documenting different ways men and women have presented themselves. We can also cut the theme by male versus female, or gay versus straight, both of which provide thoughtful insights into evolving gender roles and stereotypes. And whichever cross section we take, the strong push and pull between lustful desire and illicit transgression, and a related conflict between objectification and intimate personal connection, keep us off balance. When seen in this multi-faceted way, prostitution is a surprisingly rich photographic topic, and the show does a solid job of providing a broad spectrum of alternate viewpoints.

The historical baseline of the subject is set with expected but still resonant works from E.J. Bellocq, Eugène Atget, and Brassaï, with a few 19th century erotic examples to provide comparative context. These works provide a old world definition of the “oldest profession”, with come hither glances from storefronts and salons, and a bit more exposed skin when inside the boudoir.

Images from the 1960s through the 1980s expand the visibility of alternate forms of prostitution and dig deeper into the grittiness of hustling clients on the street, often with tenderness and supportive acceptance. Christer Strömholm captures the personal lives of Parisian transsexuals, documenting their girly preparations and downtime friendships rather than their engagement with clients. Anthony Friedkin follows male hustlers on the California streets, finding a blend of toughness and vulnerability. Leon Levinstein catches the alternating energy and fatigue of sidewalk peep show touts. And Scot Sothern actively crosses the line between photographer and john, making masked pictures of his various conquests that are full of authentically conflicted emotions.

More contemporary photographs of prostitutes look even harder at individual personalities, trying to get underneath the life choices and hardships that have led these men and women to where they are. Many key on a mood of introspection, with portraits that allow the sitters the space to tell their stories, or at least seem to capture far-off looks and meditative glances that allude to these invisible narratives. Malerie Marder and Jane Hilton take similar approaches, making portraits of bordello workers from Amsterdam/Rotterdam and Nevada respectively, celebrating individual beauty, even when that personal grace is tempered by a persistent weariness. Pedro Slim’s full-body nudes of Mexican men can be placed in the same category, where muted confidence is balanced by more wary looking. And Chris Arnade’s images of prostitutes from Hunts Point in the Bronx are the most overtly desperate and tragic, with poverty and drug addition the twin destructors lurking just outside the frame.

Seen together, the photographs in this well-edited group show circle a thorny topic, smartly uncovering its depths and contradictions. They see both joy and sadness, liberation and limited options, brash sexiness and its exploited opposites, forcing us to look beyond the easy stereotypes. In a sea of already forgotten summer group shows, this contrarian offers both a balanced mature perspective and plenty of thoughtful compassion.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows:

  • Merry Alpern: $4500
  • Anonymous: $500
  • Chris Arnade: $2000 each
  • Eugène Atget: $5000, $6000
  • George Awde: $3000 or $3500 each
  • Amos Badertscher: $1600
  • E. J. Bellocq: $12000 or $18000 each
  • Bruno-Auguste Braquehais: $15000
  • Brassaï: $9000
  • Larry Clark: $3500 each
  • Jeff Cowen: $8600
  • Philip-Lorca diCorcia: $30000
  • Danny Fields: NFS
  • Benjamin Fredrikson: $2200
  • Anthony Friedkin: $5000 each
  • Jane Hilton: $3000 each
  • Leon Levinstein: $9000 each
  • Danny Lyon: $7500
  • Malerie Marder: $8000
  • Mary Ellen Mark: NFS
  • Bob Mizer: $1500
  • Pedro Slim: $2000 each
  • Scot Sothern: $2000 or $3000
  • Christer Strömholm: $5500, $6000, or $6500 each

Given the diversity of work on view in this group show, we will dispense with our usual discussion of individual gallery representation and secondary market pricing history.

Read more about: Amos Badertscher, Anthony Friedkin, Benjamin Fredrickson, Bob Mizer, Brassaï (Gyula Halász), Bruno-Auguste Braquehais, Chris Arnade, Christer Strömholm, Danny Fields, Danny Lyon, E. J. Bellocq, Eugène Atget, George Awde, Jane Hilton, Jeff Cowen, Larry Clark, Leon Levinstein, Malerie Marder, Mary Ellen Mark, Merry Alpern, Pedro Slim, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Scot Sothern, Daniel Cooney Fine Art

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