JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and mounted on white walls in the main gallery space. Twenty-five works are exhibited on the top floor of the gallery, along the three outer walls as well as on both sides of a partition. A recording with two headphones accompanies two of the photographs. A self-portrait of the artist is exhibited next to the front desk on the lower floor. All of the works are non-vintage gelatin silver prints, sized either roughly 9×9 or 12×18 inches, made from negatives developed between 1972-75, and published here in editions of 10. A revised monograph of this body of work was published by Steidl in 2003 (here); the first edition was originally published in 1976 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Balanced precariously on its high-heeled clogs between tawdriness and pathos, Susan Meiselas’ Carnival Strippers hits every emotional note anyone could hope for in a social documentary about sex and money and performance. The 73 photographs in the first edition of the book (1976) were as raunchy as a blues by Ma Rainey and as mordant about human frailties as a film by Robert Altman.
The idea of portraying women who disrobe before crowds of rowdy men in low-rent traveling strip-shows—fugitive businesses found on the edges of small towns across the Eastern U.S. in the early ‘70s—could hardly be riskier, more prone to charges of voyeurism or sentimentality or economic exploitation or sanitizing self-censorship.
Meiselas avoided these pitfalls by photographing the enterprises from every angle and by employing techniques of anthropology. Knowing that many of these women simply wanted to tell their stories—to be heard as well as seen—she interviewed them and included their words along with her pictures. Her book is like a set of field notes about a small and self-contained tribe that operates outside the boundaries of respectability. It’s about the community of performers, their transient audience, as well as the barkers whose spiels are tailored to keep the turnstiles spinning and bring sexually frustrated men into the tents to ogle naked women engaged in age-old and quasi-illicit activities.
For these pictures to have happened, both strippers and spectators, as well as the owners of these carnivals, had to believe that a woman with a camera and microphone in her mid-’20s was no threat to their dignity or their livelihood. It’s doubtful that any man could have earned their trust as easily.
The unlikely success of the project, its intimacy and scalding humor, is a testament to Meiselas’ observational and listening skills as well as her objectivity. She is sympathetic but not a chump. These women were glad to open up to her, perhaps for the first time to any stranger. At the same time, they must have realized that her job was quite different from theirs—that her photographs might not portray them as they imagined. Conversely, she must have seen how much of what they did involved deluding their audience and perhaps themselves.
Her strongest allegiance is to these women. They are depicted naked, at close-range, relaxing backstage or in bed, alone or with male customers. Meiselas also tries never to take her eye off the onlookers. Much of the audience, as one would imagine, is made up of leering men. They are supposed to be the only ones allowed to watch, according to the barkers. The photographs prove this restriction was often laxly enforced. Some men have brought along their children, girls as well as boys, and Meiselas’s camera notes that these adults seem to enjoy the perplexed reactions of those in their care. These scenes suggest that exposing relative innocents to such sights could be another of the many forms of patriarchal inculcation and cruelty at play here, like laughing as you let your kids sip daddy’s beer. In one of the most famous images from the series, Woodstock, Vermont, Meiselas stood behind two strippers, at the back of an outdoor stage, and captured the expressions of several teen-age girls standing in the front row. More fascinated than repelled, they may be learning to accept stripping as what passes for normal entertainment among adults in their town.
Meiselas was lucky that monochrome was for most serious photographers in the early ‘70s their only serious option. If shot in color, the scenes would probably not have the same otherworldliness. Unlike the high-contrast prints in Christer Stromholm’s Les Amies de Place Blanche, to which Carnival Strippers is often compared, Meiselas’s contain almost no pure whites or blacks, only smooth and sooty shades of gray.
The book evolved out of the feminist movement and belongs with the many books and articles in the ‘70s that argued for a more celebratory, less prudish attitude toward expressions of female sexuality. Stripping, in the opinion of some women, could be another mode of liberation, a way to own your own body and profit from it in a capitalist system dominated by men.
Meiselas’s take on such utopian activism seems skeptical and more middle class. A friend photographed her as she photographed one of her flimsily dressed subjects. Standing behind her camera which is mounted on a tripod, she is covered head-to-foot in a canvas hat, safari jacket, and bellbottoms. The discrepancy in flesh exposure is comic but may also suggest an admiration for their comfort with their naked bodies that most of us lack.
More traditional in its humanism and choreography than Robert Frank’s The Americans, Carnival Strippers exhibits the same willingness to present the grotty underbelly of the country without apology. As tough and tender and non-judgmental in middle age as when it was first published 42 years ago, it remains one of the great photographic essays of the late 20th century.
Collector’s POV: Individual prints in the modern edition are priced at $6500. A complete set of all 26 prints is also available, price on request. Meiselas’ work is only intermittently available in the secondary markets, with recent single image prices ranging between roughly $1000 and $6000.