Naked bodies, strippers fixing up their hair, clients pulling out dollar bills from their pockets, and more… By capturing the peepshow unfolding behind a bathroom window, the American photographer has created a beautiful and disturbing series which explores the relationships between women and men in a male-dominated world. This magnificent series can be seen for the first time in Paris at Galerie Miranda.
When she was visiting one of her friends, Merry Alpern was stunned by the discovery that the back room of his apartment had a view of the bathroom window of a private lap-dance club. This was New York, the winter of 1993. The photographer immediately recognized the subject of what would become her superb series Dirty Windows. Over the next six months, until the club got shut down by the police, Merry Alpern perched at her viewing point in her friend’s apartment and photographed what went on in the tiny, 10×10 foot bathroom. Every female stripper working at the club passed through there, as did countless clients who sought to have a moment alone with them. As if she were watching a shadow theater, the photographer captured scenes she found surprising and turned them into unsettling images in which nudity vies with grace, desire is coupled with violence, and trade is king.
There are also plenty of scenes showing people taking drugs, for example snorting cocaine. Then there are scenes of paid sexual favors. Images show money changing hands in return for the promised kiss. But we are also shown the fragility of the women who spend a few seconds in front of the mirror, touch up their makeup, or momentarily escape into a daydream. The bathroom may be the only place where they can lock the door and be alone, take control of a few minutes of their lives—lives subject to the law of the marketplace that doesn’t care about their mental or physical health. Using her camera, Merry Alpern manages to convey the suffering and humanity of these women who work to please and who dance naked for a living before the avid male gaze. Just as the painter Edgar Degas portrayed prostitutes and opera dancers, Merry Alpern foregrounds the bleak, behind-the-scenes insecurity of this type of establishment.
Frame by frame, the photographer captures scenes of unusual intensity. They shed light on a facet of a rarely glimpsed world that is deliberately hidden from view, buried in insalubrious buildings and in the recesses of squalid clubs. By elevating that bathroom window to the rank of a theater of customs and practices of sex workers, Merry Alpern has managed to draw attention to an unspoken social practice that invariably makes for an uncomfortable topic of conversation. As a case in point, when she was about to receive a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in 1994, her nomination was suddenly overturned by more conservative members of the council who were outraged by the images. “She stepped into a taboo territory, forbidden to women,” explains the gallery owner, Miranda Salt, adding that the artist faced accusations of voyeurism even while those who leveled them seemed oblivious to the fact that what they found disturbing was the subject matter. In a patriarchal society, such as New York City was at the time, the idea of being confronted with a backroom view of a strip club was enough to provoke backlash. But never mind. A few years later, the series found its way into major American museums, proving the immense appeal of the project. Alpern’s series is an in-depth exploration of normalization of violence and of male dominance. And precisely the fact that a woman was behind the camera adds a sensitive touch to the images, a note of empathy that makes them even more beautiful.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Merry Alpern, Dirty Windows
February 22 to April 20, 2019
Galerie Miranda, 21 rue du Château d’Eau, 75010 Paris