Susan Meiselas: Carnival Strippers. 1976. Hardcover. With dustjacket.
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1976. First edition, first printing. Signed by Susan Meiselas! Original from 1976 (There was also a later edition in 2003). Very important photobook! Andrew Roth, The Book of 101 Books, page 238/239. The Open Book, Hasselblad Center, page 312/313. 802 photo books from the M.+M. Auer collection, page 599. Hardcover with jacket. 250 x 220 mm. 150 pages. 73 illustrations.
Susan Meiselas: Carnival Strippers
written by Tom Seymour
“It’s getting near show time!” the voice would boom out over the cheers of the punters. Susan Meiselas would hover at first near the back of the tent. “Don’t be shy, take your hands out of your pockets, take your money out of your wallets. Rest your elbows on the stage and look up into the whole, the whole goddamn show. Show time! Where they strip to please, not to tease!”
Susan Meiselas was 24 when she started Carnival Strippers. It was the summer of 1972, and her photography experience was limited to portraits of her housemates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She had just completed an MA from Harvard, yet she still was shy and unsure of herself – very unlike the direct intellect of today, who treats Magnum’s offices like a second home. But in the earliest of these early pictures, she had not yet been invited into the showgirls’ dressing room.
Meiselas has seen some terrible things, but rarely – if ever – has she flinched. When they exhumed Saddam Hussein’s mass graves, Meiselas was there, making us witness. When Pinochet’s murderous regime limped into its dog days, Meiselas was there too. On the wall opposite the Carnival Strippers exhibition at London’s Magnum office is her picture of a hillside in Nicaragua, mountains rolling away into the distance, water glinting in the valleys. In the foreground, a pair of legs, still wearing jeans, and the broken butt of a spinal cord snaking from the belt-line. It was, and maybe still is, a favourite spot for executions, and animals lurk their to scavenge. “I had nightmares the first time I saw that image,” I say to her. “Good,” comes the instant reply. “That’s the idea.”
Yet she began here, in the midst of a travelling troupe of showgirls whom took their clothes off to music in a collapsable tent in towns across New England and South Carolina. “I was a young woman trying to figure out what was going on,” she says. “This was the early feminist movement, and the moment I saw the fair, it seemed to represent everything I was thinking about; should women project themselves as objects to be desired? Should we deconstruct that gaze to be taken seriously? I watched these women perform, saw how they were using their bodies. It was very potent.”
The tent would stay erected for three to five days, before packing up and moving on. A dressing room divided the public entrance, where the girls would dance on stage, and a more private entrance: “The degree of suggestion on the front stage and participation on the back stage varies greatly from town to town, depending on legislation and local leniency,” Meiselas says. The audience ranged from bankers to farmers, and there was only one hard and fast rule: ‘No ladies, and no babies.’
“That, in itself, was reason enough to find a way of getting in,” she says.
The women she photographed were between 17 and 35 years old – “runaways, girlfriends of carnies, club dancers, both transient and professional”. They were paid $15 to $50 a night, depending on how well they did, minus expenses.
“Most had left small towns, seeking mobility, money, something different from what was prescribed, or proscribed, by the lives the carnival allowed them to leave,” she writes in the introduction to the book, first published in 1976 (republished by Steidl in 2003). “The girl show is a business, and carnival stripping is competitive and seasonal. Those woman who make it a career find winter employment on a series of related circuits – go-go bars, strip clubs, stag parties, and occasional prostitution. For most women, the carnival is an interlude on the way to jobs as waitresses, secretaries, and housewives.”
The next summer, she turned up again. And then again in 1974 and ’75. She became part of the girls’ inner social lives, sharing in their secrets and private politics. As part of a tradition of photographers in the era, notably with Danny Lyon’s Bikeriders and, in the UK, Daniel Meadows with his seminal Living Like This, she began recording her subjects voices as well taking their picture. She was able to document the conflicts between their public, performative image and their private identities.
Meiselas, who was made a Magnum member in 1976, had the ability to layer these issues into the social milieu and emotional landscape of her subjects. The political and the performative are fused here into a dramatic whole. To look at the girls’ isolated faces now is to feel, somehow, like you might have once known them. Her public scenes look like stills from a film you once saw, and can only half remember.
But in no way was she ever complicit, or supportive, of the world she had so skilfully become embedded. “The recognition of this world is not the invention of it,” she says. “I wanted to present an account of the girl show that portrayed what I saw and revealed how the people involved felt about what they were doing.”
What she discovered was a complex, often contradictory set of motivations and attitudes towards their work, and to sex, money and men in general. Their plain spoken words caught the zeitgeist of the early women’s movement – of public sexuality, self-esteem and identity politics, of how women should respond to, and deal with, the male urge to consume and commodify the bodies of their opposite sex. After almost 40 years of debate, Carnival Strippers remains powerful, potent and fiercely relevant.
Tate Modern in display of voyeurism for photography curator's debut
From Cartier-Bresson via Helmut Newton to Alison Jackson: Simon Baker has 13 rooms of images we should not be seeing
In pictures: Tate Modern's Exposed
Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and The Camera - Tate Modern
Roving eye ... a visitor to the Tate Modern takes in Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Mark Brown, arts correspondent
Wednesday 26 May 2010 17.52 BST Last modified on Thursday 27 May 2010 09.28 BST
It promises to be the most intrusive art exhibition Tate Modern has ever held: 13 rooms of photographs and video footage of things we really should not be seeing – ranging from sex and death to outrageous invasions of privacy.
Somewhat presciently, given the coalition government's promise of legislation to regulate the use of CCTV, the scariness and scale of surveillance features heavily in Voyeurism, which opens to the public on Friday.
The exhibition suggests that, as a society, we have always been voyeurs – it is just that technology now makes it so much easier.
"The exhibition is meant to be a critical look at the issues that surround voyeurism and surveillance," said Simon Baker, Tate's recently appointed photography curator.
"We are raising questions about boundaries, about technology. There are serious moral questions about who's looking, how they're looking and why they're looking."
In essence, it is a photography exhibition which raises the question of whether photography is actually a good thing, and includes work by well-known figures including Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Miller, Guy Bourdin, Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe.
The show ranges from images that are straightforwardly voyeuristic, such as Helmut Newton fashion shots, to much more challenging work such as the US photojournalist Susan Meiselas's Carnival Strippers series, in which she photographs leering men in an audience watching strippers. "It is posing a question about the politics of spectatorship," said Baker.
There are also celebrity stalking and paparazzi shots, including snaps of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor canoodling in their swimming costumes and a tearful Paris Hilton on her way to court, and images by Alison Jackson, the photographer who uses lookalikes to comic effect. Newspaper coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales is also included.
One of the most difficult rooms contains journalistic images of death and violence and some people will undoubtedly whistle through the room, upset by awful images of suicide, execution and lynching. It includes images such as Tom Howard's electrocution of Ruth Snyder, from 1928, and Eddie Adams' haunting photograph of a Viet Cong officer being executed in 1968.
The show has been created and curated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – to where it will transfer in the autumn – but the Tate has tweaked it here and there for London.
Curators would have liked to show Kohei Yoshiyuki's 1971 series, The Park, as it was originally shown in Japan: in a dark room with visitors having to use torches.
The images were taken at night with an infrared camera and show straight couples having sex in Tokyo parks and gay men cruising for sex – all the time surrounded by others looking on, gawping.
Since individual torches would be too much for a mass audience they are, instead, displayed in a dark, spotlit corridor.
The appointment last September of Baker as Tate's first curator of photography reflects the organisation's increasing commitment to the medium, he said.
"The idea also is that photography is taken more seriously within our acquisition policy, that we bring more photography into the collection and that we show more of it," Baker said. That also meant buying more of what could be termed "straight", rather than conceptual, photography and photojournalism.
"There is that whole argument from the 1980s about collecting photographs from artists not art from photographers – that's really a redundant distinction."