S U S A N M E I S E L A S : HE/SHE/THEY
Susan Meiselas photographed Mitzi, a performer in a touring carnival for her series Carnival Strippers (1972-75), in a way that stages her effortlessly as a personality. Spending several summers with the traveling group of dancers during the early years of the women’s movement, Meiselas documented their public performances as well as their private lives. Mitzi is essentially performing for the camera, proclaiming her presence in a direct, natural, and confident fashion.
“Here the posed nude, to paraphrase Kenneth Clark's canonic distinction, all at once turns into the naked, the exposed: the confident, unembarrassed body becomes one that is unintentionally observed. What is revealed is that, behind the curtain, the dancers are essentially workers. Taking a few minutes off, they are resting, cleaning up, smoking.
This is not the sexy demimonde of the romantic imagination, where a hungry male gaze might adore the ladies of the night. This photographer's eye does not eroticize or aestheticize the women, but candidly observes their conditions, and her perspective from backstage carries over to observing their performances. Carnival Strippers is, as much as anything, a social documentary about a workplace, an unsung career chosen by women as a way to earn more money than by any other means open to them. Are they victims of male exploitation or, on the contrary, are they intrepid free spirits, breaking with social norms, perhaps a little bit like the photographer herself?”
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