Intimate Strangers

Susan Meiselas
Open Eye Gallery, Wood Street
31st March - 20th May 2006

Reviewed by Kenn Taylor

Intimate Strangers is a collection of two bodies of work from Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas. They are from different eras but the same subject matter - namely the American sex industry.

The first exhibit - the one that dominates the gallery - is ‘Pandora’s Box’. It is a series of vivid large format photographs taken in Pandora’s Box, a Manhattan club which describes itself as ‘a Disneyland of Domination’. The pictures show a series of fat, semi-naked men - mostly likely the managing director of your bank - in various compromising positions. The club is a palace of gaudy luxury; gold and velvet are strew about everywhere in differing rooms with names like ‘the Versailles Room’ and ‘Ravenswood Academy’ (for those with a school mistress fixation). Clients are shown engaging in various activities - from being whipped to sucking the toes of the ‘mistresses’ running the show, who for the most part appear on the periphery of the images. But the mistresses are also shown ‘off-set’ - getting changed, taking breaks, having medical checkups. Also included is a photocopy of the consent form that club members fill in, which details preferences e.g. uniforms, degradation and the extremity levels they would like from 1 to 5.

The exhibit in the gallery’s back room is 'Carnival Strippers'. This was a project that Meiselas undertook earlier on in her career, when she spent her summers between 1972 and 1975 photographing and interviewing women who performed striptease acts for small town carnivals across middle America. The images are shown as a slide show, with the taped interviews played over it. All in black and white with 1970s setting obvious, the images switch between the cheap carnival glamour of flashing bulbs and frilly curtains to the internal seediness behind the stage with close-ups of slightly overweight women lounging around in their knickers looking bored and smoking.

Intimate Strangers is a slightly dark and slightly humorous exhibition, examining a very strange world on the periphery of society. One of the aspects you notice the most in the images is how pathetic the men in the both collections seem. They are all trussed up in Pandora’s Box, but even in Carnival Strippers the images of the baying, dumb looking men show who has the real power when compared to the confident if bored looking women. Also apparent in both exhibits is the banality and mundane world beneath these sexual shows, the bare trailers in Carnival Strippers where the women play cards. Even in Pandora's Box, despite conditions having obviously improved (computers, a comfy rest space and a fully equipped medical room are all available) it is still apparent that it is just another day at the grindstone for the women involved.

Printer friendly page