Susan Meiselas‘ photographs from ‘Carnival Stripper’ take us back 40 years to the carnival striptease shows that used to travel across America during the Summer months.
This was Meiselas first major documentary essay and took her over three years to complete – three Summers of moving with striptease shows across New England, Pennsylvania and South Carolina – taking pictures of the front and backstage shows as well as taping interviews with the dancers, their boyfriends, the show managers and the customers.
The carnival circuit took her to small towns along the east coast where she came across a multitude of punters from farmers to bankers and fathers to sons as well as the workers and dancers working in the circus. It was a very rudimentary set up. Each strip show took place on a truck that unfolded to form two stages; one open to the public carnival, the other concealed under a tent for a private audience. Inbetween these two worlds was a dressing room which the women passed through day and night performing for the duration of a 45 record.
What’s remarkable about these photographs is that Meiselas manages to pull us into her world. We are implicit in this seedy life. Her dynamic framing, cropping of the dancers bodies, extreme angles and high contrast printing all feeding into the griminess of the shows. We are implicated in this exchange of money for flesh. We are forced to look into the eyes of these tired women – a mixture of runaways, club dancers and girlfriends of the carnival workers stripping to escape the narrow confines of their lives – and explain our motives for peeking.
These images transfix you. They speak of another time, an era of change when America was struggling with itself. Questioning everything it had come to believe in. It’s a series of vignettes that brought Meiselas too national attention and led her to a successful career in Magnum. Here’s what she has to say about this series:
The women I met ranged in age from seventeen to thirty-five. Most had left small towns, seeking mobility, money and something different from what was prescribed or proscribed by their lives that the carnival allowed them to leave. They were runaways, girlfriends of carnies, club dancers, both transient and professional.
The all-male audience typically included farmers, bankers, fathers, and sons, but “no ladies and no babies.” The degree of suggestion on the front stage and participation on the back stage under the tent varied greatly from town to town, depending on legislation and local leniency. The show stayed at each spot for three to five days each year; then the carnival was torn down, the truck packed up, and the women followed.