Susan Meiselas’s Carnival Strippers, at Danziger Gallery through March 3, provides an opportunity to re-visit this classic documentary project during a time when intersectional feminism is part of the national discourse.
For three summers, from 1973 to 1975, Meiselas, then in her mid-twenties, with a master’s degree from Harvard, traveled with “girl shows,” low-end seasonal stripteases at fairs in New England. With a handheld Leica, she used a fly-on-the-wall approach to capture candid moments from the spectators, carnies, and the women. She also made formal portraits, and conducted hours of recorded interviews.
Carnival Strippers is not solely about female subjugation and victimization. Nor is it a sex-positive tale of female self-determination. Instead, it’s about work – the work of a traveling strip show, and how everyone involved feels about it. We the viewers, not unlike the spectators in the photos, must also decide how we feel about this work. This is the brilliant discomfiture of the project.
Carnival Strippers is also about class. The project is, in the end, the artifact of the dynamic between one woman with a camera, and the means to pursue her own passions, and those whose best option for work is to show their bodies to the farmers and blue-collar men of the local fairs (and in certain lax towns, allow them to touch – and more). Meiselas’s non-judgmental curiosity, the time she dedicated, and the inclusion of the women’s voices, are to her great credit, and what distinguishes the project from exploitation.
This modest exhibition highlighted the aching, unsettling beauty of many of Meiselas’s photos. However, Meiselas’s entire project is more fully realized with the audio interviews. This exhibition includes only two headphones in the back gallery, each playing 15-minute loops, which a visitor would be unlikely to listen to in their entirety. Luckily, Meiselas’s retrospective, Mediations, opens this summer at SFMOMA, which is likely to show a larger, more comprehensive installation of Carnival Strippers.