The photographs in Show were made recently, from 2001 to 2009. But they really date to 1968, when Arthur Siegel, my Photo One teacher, introduced me to the documentary photographs of Robert Frank, Brassai, August Sander, Weegee, and Ed van der Elsken. It was this work, and other work like it, that sold me on becoming a photographer. Until then, I had been studying history, with the goal of a PhD and an academic career. But I learned that going into the world with a camera in hand was a lot more fun than retreating to the library with books in hand. The air was healthier—and I got a lot more dates that way. Lucky for me, using a camera I could still be a historian, of sorts. At least that’s what my new friends Frank, Brassai, Sander, Weegee, and van der Elsken were teaching me. Over the years I’ve photographed many different types of subjects, even animals and the human form. But I’ve always returned to my roots as a documentary photographer. More than anything, I like a good story. And I try to tell one in a direct way, with humor and a punch line if possible. With this in mind, I have photographed country musicians in Nashville, my family and friends in Massachusetts, horse racing at Saratoga, nightlife in Buenos Aires, old highways everywhere, everyone in Cajun Louisiana, South American baseball, camel breeding in Dubai, tri-racial families in Maryland, and much, much more.
For subjects, I prefer older cultures and places, especially disappearing ones. That’s what my history teachers, Jesse Lemisch (at University of Chicago) and E. P. Thompson (at University of Warwick), taught me to do. These cultures and places might vanish, but it is a historian’s righteous duty to make sure that they leave a trace. I also was very influenced by another teacher in Chicago, John G. Cawelti, who taught me (and doubting historians predating him) that popular culture should be taken seriously. As I learned more and more about photography, I began to appreciate the work and philosophy of Alexey Brodovitch, influential art director of Harper’s Bazaar magazine (1934–58). Brodovitch believed less in genres of photography than in good pictures. ”Amaze me,” he is reported to have said time after time, and the photographers who succeeded fell into no one niche. Brodovitch’s stable ranged from fashion legends Richard Avedon and Irving Penn to photojournalists W. Eugene Smith and David Douglas Duncan to photographers pursuing a personal point of view, such as Robert Frank and Lisette Model. Lofty company, to say the least.
One other great influence for me was my teacher at Rhode Island School of Design, Harry Callahan. Harry encouraged me to “shoot what you love,” and to pay no attention to what others are doing. “Even if you make bad pictures,” he said, “you’ll have a good time.” Thank you for that, Harry.
It was very much with these ideas in mind that Show was born. The world it covers is old-time, and a random mix of burlesque, drag, sideshow, and fetish in style. Its modern performers are young, nowhere near extinction. But no doubt the movement will play out its run at some point, and I hope Show will help in some small way to preserve and celebrate its existence.
In 2001, I wandered into the Shim-Sham Club in New Orleans, and caught the first annual Tease-O-Rama event. Little did I know then that this was a watershed moment for the neo-burlesque movement—in a sense, where it all began. I shot a few roles of film, including pictures of the legendary Dita Von Tease and Catherine D’Lish, and started going to shows and shooting casually. One thing led to another, as so often happens in photography, and Show was born.
To me, modern burlesque performers embody so many traits of true artists. They are creative and driven and determined to serve up their vision of the world in song, dance, humor, and narrative. They like being different from everyone else. In fact, they wear that difference with pride. Their style and method of delivery make burlesque popular art—not so much for the elite Art in America crowd. But that doesn’t make it any less artful. Living on the margins, the best of today’s burlesque artists have a signature vision, strong in message and execution. To paraphrase folksinger Mayne Smith, “You might not like their style, boys, but you will know who they are.”
For the photographers and technical geeks out there, I shot all the earliest pictures in Show with a 35mm camera, during stage performances or off to the side when performers were taking a break. I fitted my trusty Canon EOS-1V with the fastest lenses I could, including a 50mm f/1 and an 85mm f/1.2, and usually used Fujipan 1600, to capture light in the dimmest possible spots. In processing, I extended the film development time 20 percent or more, to make sure my negative had enough density to print well. After a while, I began to get frustrated by the limits of shooting in performance. I couldn’t move easily from one spot to another, lighting was catch-as-catch-can, and microphones often obscured my line of vision. So, I arranged to meet with performers in studio to get more control—and to get closer. I began shooting with a Canon 5D, the first affordable digital camera that produced image files good enough to compete with film, at least in my opinion.
But I still missed film, and decided to mix things up with medium format, mostly flash on camera, like I used to shoot when I started out. For this, I used a Mamiya 6 and Kodak Tri-X film, processed normally. What a mess. Now I had grainy rectangular black-and- white film, crisp digital files, and square black and whites. Furthermore, digital capture gave me the option of making some of my pictures in color. I posed the matter to my students a while back, and one said she preferred the black and white because color was so “predictable” for this subject. I liked her answer, and ditched the idea of a mix.
I think black and white is a more timeless medium. It also seems well suited to my subject. Besides, I just like my pictures better that way. Today, almost all photographers shoot in color, which to me is reason enough to stick to black and white.
Years ago, I photographed Dolly Parton, backstage at Symphony Hall in Boston. I asked her why she dressed like she did—so outrageously. “Honey,” she said (more or less), “you have to be different. People don’t come out to see me looking just like them.” Good advice for the performers in Show—and also for the photographer trying to chronicle them.