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“The Chez Girls,” Tyler Ondine Whitman at New Alchemy

Bare Naked All Nude

It’s 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.)

Picture 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.

What 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?

This 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 advantage.  She 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.

She 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 writes,  “You 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.” 

Many of the bodies we see in these photographs are less than model perfect.  They 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. 

It’s 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.

Perhaps 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 husbands.

Whitman’s 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.

 

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