- Hardcover: 164 pages
- Publisher: Steidl; Revised edition (September 2, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 3882439548
- ISBN-13: 978-3882439540
- Product Dimensions: 11 x 0.9 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,270,889 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Carnival Strippers Revised Edition
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The book first appeared in 1976 and his long been out-of-print. The photographer, Susan Meiselas, was at the time a young woman just out of graduate school. She spent the summers of 1972 -- 1975 following the carnivals and in getting to know the women to photograph them and their environs. She at first offered her photographs and interviews to various feminist publications who turned them down.
Meiselas subsequently went on to a distinguished career as a documentary photographer working extensively in Central America and Kurdistan. In 1992, Meiselas was named a MacArthur fellow.
"Carnival Strippers" received attention upon its initial publication for its frank, but nonjudgmental portrayal of its tawdry subject. The book was made into two plays before it, like the carnival strip shows themselves disappeared from attention. Then, in 2000, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City featured a retrospective of the photographs. The Whitney Museum published this second edition of "Carnival Strippers" in 2003 with Sylvia Wolf, curator of photography at the Museum contributing an essay. Deidre English of the Graduate School of Photojournalism at the University of California at Berkeley has also written an essay for the book.
In the 2003 edition, 16 new photographs are added from Meiselas's source materials and 13 photographs that appeared in the 1976 edition are deleted, making a total of 76 photographs in the book. The new edition is also rearranged from the initial text. There are two sections of photographs, the first called "the girl show" and the second called "portraits". The essays by Wolf and English draw parallels between Meiselas's work and the work of Brassi's 1930 photos of Paris prostitutes, as well as with the work of contemporary photographers such as Diane Arbus. To me the strongest parallel is Belloq's collection of photographs of prostitutes in Storyville, New Orleans dating from the turn of the century.
In the grainy black-and-white photographs of the life of the carnival strip shows, we meet the women and the barkers on the front stage called a "bally" enticing the men to enter the show. For a price of $2 or $3, the show consisted of four or five women each dancing naked to, generally, a single 45 rpm record. The book shows photos of the girls at work to crowds of leering men. The world of the "girl shows" was competitive and nasty.... We see the girls off-stage in dressing rooms and in private moments reflecting on their lives. There are extensive interviews with the strippers, the managers and barkers and the patrons. The book also comes with a CD featuring the sounds of the strip shows, interviews with the girls, and a 1997 interview with Susan Meiselas.
The book paints the picture of a low, tawdry life with mutual exploitation between the girls, their managers, and the patrons. Yet it is a way of life not without its fascination. It is a life of poor, mostly ignorant, and exploited women, but also a life based upon the rejection of convention and upon attempts to attain independence. Meiselas clearly became taken with the strippers, their attempt at independence, their eccentricities, their vulnerability, and their vulgarity. For Meiselas and her subjects, Carnival life is something that gets in the person, making it hard to leave when one has been exposed. I found the life of these now gone carnivals and girl shows got inside me as well in reading this book.
The women in this book are not beautiful, air-brushed models and the book has little to offer in the way of titillation. Meiselas tries to show the viewer and the reader the carnival life for what it was. The book shows a dark corner of the eternal theme of sexuality and love between men and women in all its difficulty and ambiguity....
"Any book allows it reader to distance himself. The curtain closing on the girl show stage is replaced by the page turning over. Like the show, the book represents coexistent aspects of a phenomenon, one which horrifies,one which honors. If the viewer is appalled [as I was] by what follows, that reaction is not so difference from the alienation of those who participate in the shows." From the forward of the 1976 edition which appeared while the shows were still a part of the American carnival scene."
End note: The 2003 Whitney Museum exhibition of the Meiselas photographs and its publication of this thoughtful revision of the original 1976 edition is a credit to all concerned. Both the original cloth bound and paperback editions as well as the three editions of the Whitney reissue are available. For example, see the listings on Addall.com where the prices range from $30.00 for a fair copy of the first edition paperback to nearly $2000 for a signed first edition. Take your pick.
Most impressive to me was the fact the author says almost nothing of her own opinions or ideas regarding the girls, the talkers or the lifestyle. Instead the reader is simply treated to the text of her interviews and therefore only the ideas of the people who performed and in some cases the people that watched.
As performer I was especially pleased to read in it's entirety an original Girlshow "talk" or "bally" at the front of the book, and I love the unabashed and often casual photos taken back stage, all of witch give one an insiders sense of what it must have been like in the glory days.