Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sex Objects by Eric Kroll - Sex Theaters by Andre Gelpke

You know, Eldon (Eldon Hoke aka. El Duce, drummer and front-man for The Mentors)... his starting line when he worked at The Ivar Theater as the film man was "Gentlemen, pitch your tents!" and the guys would pull their jackets up over their crotch. - Carlos Guitarlos

You cannot blame porn. When I was young I used to masturbate to Gilligan's Island. - Ron Jeremy

We'll have this room fumigated when you're out of it! - Kathleen Howard to Barbara Stanwyck from Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)

To pursue an intellectual discourse is not usually the first response one has when seeing a person naked. The debate has heard a billion opinions whether women who get paid to expose their bodies are in positions of power, or being exploited. Photographers have loved nude bodies. Old camera clubs would mask the perversity of group photo-gangbang sessions by having the models pose "artistically" in the woods or perched on rocks near an ocean as if they were just stumbled upon frolicking around, communing with nature - mother nature as fuck toy. The two books in this post, each calling themselves "a documentary" delve into the world of camera clubs, massage parlors and sex theaters.

The first is Eric Kroll's Sex Objects: An American Photodocumentary published by Addison House in 1977. I first saw this book at Paris Photo in the booth of a dealer who assigned it a hefty price tag. I figured it was rare (I had forgotten to look it up online) but a copy turned up at The Strand Bookstore for 35 dollars so I grabbed it.

Kroll, who had been photographing women since he "was 16" became interested in women who made money through their bodies. Whenever he traveled for a commercial job he would search out massage parlors, nude shows and sex shops and engage in another commercial activity - paying women to allow him to photograph them. Sex Objects is the result of photographing 50 and interviewing over 100 women in 30 different US cities.

Make no mistake, Kroll's photography in this book isn't much beyond the expected. He frames the women posing in their workrooms or against studio seamless in a matter of fact way. He offers two or three photos of about 30 models, shooting them in both black and white and color.

What is good is the way the book is put together. It has a surprisingly playful design for a book from the late 70s with multicolor paper stock for the text pages and contrast between the color and b+w pictures. Large horizontal color images are oriented as verticals, their palette seems to mimic the glossy girly mag spreads from the time period. In some ways the women could be seen as a parade of possible choices within the context of this "documentary." In the interviews the women express a range of attitudes towards what they do for a living. Kroll's own notes include a variety of price lists and ways in which these establishments avoid charges of prostitution by skirting local state law.

Time will tell as to how this book stands after a few readings. I sense that the funky 70s color has much to do with the appeal.

Andre Gelpke's Sex-Theater made its appearance a few years later in 1981 published by Mahnert-Lueg.

Shot entirely in black and white 35mm, Gelpke's approach isn't really much better nor dynamic than Kroll's. In fact, both have very similar sensibilities to arranging their frames - many of which are center weighted images that feel repetitive.

Gelpke starts by alternating images of women painted onto strip club windows with portraits of the real performers. Once inside, the theater's stage is mostly a bare-bones affair with the performers going about their act; fucking, stripping or trying their talents as acrobats. One familiar with Garry Winogrand's pictures in the Ivar Theater in LA will have an idea of the sometimes dreary atmosphere made all the worse by Gelpke's evenly lit flash. In the glaring light of the exposure we see the grime and wear and tear of the stage curtains and walls.

There are some good pictures here but most get treated as if shot from the same vantage point from the audience. Rarely do we see any other audience members other than a hint of them by random disembodied arms stretching into the frame. In the last couple images the stage is filled with a variety of characters as if for a grand finale. Those two pictures become a bit more interesting with potential but sadly they just end the book. Maybe Gelpke is hinting that these places are always a bit of a let down. Surely a stretch but how else does it all manage to look so mundane.