Naked All Nude
happened again. There’s a bad pile up on the 405. We’re stuck
in the fast lane moving by micromiles. A 55-minute trip in
the best of circumstances has now stretched to three hours.
It’s blazing hot. These are the worst of circumstances. Welcome
to LA. At last we reach the Labrea exit on the 10 and head
towards Melrose. My companion and I are in search of The New
Alchemy Gallery. New Alchemy specializes in showing the still
photographs of cinematographers, and doubles as a frame shop.
(“To help with the rent,” the proprietor explains.) The current
exhibition is of black and white photographs by Tyler Ondine
Whitman. (She is not a cinematographer.)
a place where the music is very loud. The room is dark, smoky,
dim. Girls in spangles and tassels strut on a bar-like stage,
men inches away. They stand half naked, or naked, dancing,
half dancing, pretending to hump a pole, drag a feather up
a crack, fondle a breast, wriggle close up to the face of
a bespeckled man in a plaid shirt, or crouch on haunches with
knees spread wide. A girl gyrates wearing nothing but spike
heels. A man is seated opposite. His hands are limp by the
sides of his paunch. He holds a cigarette. His face is in
a grimace (of lust?), his eyes half-fearful, half-hateful,
half . . . . in love.
Money is placed on the stage. It’s 11 in the morning.
is this transaction?
The girl gets the money, or at least part of it. (Management
always takes a cut.)
But for the girl it can be a lot more money than she
makes at a “straight” job. The man? Well, he gets off, or
maybe not, or he does later. For a $20 cover he can stay all
day if he wants. There are special rooms. “Lap Dance” rooms. In these rooms the girl straddles the man and he gets a private
dance. $20 for
a three minute song. The men are not allowed to touch, but
the girl can give a hand job for $20 more. If she wants to
do anything else, it’s her business. She’s got to watch out
for the police. It’s a transaction that meets a need, the
girls for money, the men for sex (or this form of it.) Nobody
is hurt, or are they?
information and a little more can be found in Whitman’s self
published book of photographs, “The Chez Girls.” (Available
for $22.95 at Parler Media, P.O. Box 29133, Los Angeles, CA.
90029, Tel. 323-697-7227) Her images are from a series
made at the Chez Girls strip club in 1995.
Whitman, who was 19 when she inveigled her way into
the seamy world of nude dancing, spent six months photographing
in a club she passed on her way to work in San Francisco.
One of the seedier of these kinds of establishments, Whitman
gained entry by jollying up the manager. She writes in her
book, “A couple drinks and him shouting/spitting in my ear
for an hour got him to let me come back and shoot the dancers
for his window display.” Whitman is young and pretty - an
confesses her fear. “It had been 3 days of chickening out
- I did it - ready or not - let me stress the not.” Once inside,
someone asks her if she’s auditioning. Most assuredly not!
Whitman finds the environment and the work deeply dispiriting,
but enthralled, quits
her day job to spend more time at the club which is open from
11 A.M. to 2 A.M.
seems to have had carte blanche to photograph whatever she
wanted on the dance floor and in the dressing rooms. Holly,
a dancer who is close to Whitman’s age, becomes a friend.
When Holly attempts suicide, Whitman who has tried to help,
is shaken. She
think you’re going to come out with these big realizations,
but then all you think is Wow, I will never strip.” All of
the dancers are changed by the job, but never for the better,
and they can’t change back, says Whitman.
“You’ re selling your body, not your talents or your
abilities. You begin to look at yourself as a product. Your
flesh becomes everything. Stripping,” she states, “ isn’t
EVIL, it’s just a thing some girls do to get by.
But I will NEVER, EVER strip and never let anyone I
cared about do it. It really fucks with your head.”
of the bodies we see in these photographs are less than model
are aged and scarred and tattooed. One bicep is emblazoned
with the words “Born Dead” and it seems to say everything
about a woman who feels so little of life that she titles
herself “Born Dead.” Some of the “girls” are in their late
40’s. They work the day shift
so they don’t have to compete with the younger women.
Eventually Whitman and Holly argue and are no longer speaking.
Leaving the club
on bad terms she heads for Las Vegas where she begins printing
some of her 2000 negatives. It takes a long time to figure
out which are the best ones.
all been done before of course, most impressively in the 1980’s
by Joyce Baronio whose superb, large format photographs of
the dancers at Show World Entertainment Center on 42nd street
in New York are indelible icons of humanity.
Susan Meiselas photographed a variation on the theme
in her book of carnival strippers in the 1970’s and more recently
of erotic dancers in New York.
But Whitman’s teenaged take on this subject is different,
visceral, raw, rough, and without artifice.
Her high contrast, grainy images don’t tell us much
about the individual lives and the social forces baring down
on the women who inhabit her photographs, but it’s still vital
that she made them and we study them.
The significance lies in the fact that in 1999 heading
up to 2000, while we live in unparalleled economic prosperity,
there are still women whose best alternative for making real
money is to dance nude in these clubs, and in this time of
sexual freedom there are men who need them.
from these photographs we really learn more about the photographer.
Whitman photographs herself in a bra and panties wearing a
wig, a cigarette dangling from her pouty lip and in one three
part sequence points a big gun at her head.
Her tough, take-no-prisoners, generation sub-X, stance
on life has its own twisted appeal. (Dare I say endearing?)
Her book includes diary excerpts and a long section
of dark self-portraits in the manner of an underwear-wearing,
wasted, burnt-out, . . . what? Hippie, junkie, dancer?
She is so pretty. The girl is somebody’s daughter.
We are reminded that all the dancers, despite their hard faces,
and tough tattoos, are daughters and perhaps mothers and sisters,
as the men whose needs they meet are brothers, fathers, and
mission has been to expose the hair’s breath distance between
her own perilous existence and the girls she photographed.
She has preserved one specific moment and place in this time,
and revealed how some people do what they have to do to survive.
For her fearlessness she deserves credit.
Whitman took a walk on the dark side, terrified she
could have been one of them - the lost ones.
She thinks she just barely escaped. Maybe we all have.