2003 (Powerhouse books)
After graduating from New York University`s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in photography, Juliana Beasley initially followed the standard track for her industry: she assisted other, already-established, photographers on their shoots, doing everything from setting up their equipment to managing their studio. Within a couple of years, however, she began working in a strip club in Queens, New York, and quickly discovered that she could earn considerable money--far more than as a young photographer. Dancing topless just made more financial sense than developing film.
Lapdancer documents the unique blend of fantasy and commerce within this world, as revealed through text and images. Beasley spent over eight years working as a stripper and lap-dancer in various clubs in New York and New Jersey, as well as some brief forays to Florida, Hawaii, and beyond. Like most of her fellow dancers, Beasley approached her job like a well-organized business; while she had a specific number in mind, some of the other strippers were saving for school, or to have enough to buy a property, a car, a club of their own. Beasley immerses us in this world, giving readers a firsthand account of what it is like to dance topless, full-nude, and eventually lap-dance (both on the floor as well as in the VIP room). Her fellow performers are all different ages, ethnicities, have different "strategies" to achieve their long- and short-term goals. Dancing, with or without clothes, is work.
Beasley´s eight year stint working as a dancer ended towards the beginning of the Guiliani-era, when her club was raided by undercover police, charging her and others with prostitution (the charges were eventually dismissed). This pivotal event helped her to both leave this business, as well as conceive of combining her insider´s access to this world with her love for photography. Lapdancer is the result.
In addition to writing about her own personal experiences, Beasley also includes interviews with former customers, bouncers, dancers, and club managers in the book. Collectively, these are some of the most fascinating. The (female) dancers reveal the variety of tools they deploy to get those bills from their customers. On the other hand, those (male) customers seem unable to differentiate fantasy from reality, believing that these women are talking with them because they are friends, rather than a fertile source of income. Lapdancer reveals the gulf between them, but also the complex nuances within this particular space of exchange. Wisely, the author doesn´t attempt to draw any conclusions for the reader; instead, Beasley lets each person speak for themselves, in all of their (our) contradictory humanity. These are intimate, candid interviews, reeking with privacy and naked with honesty.
Beasley´s photographic eye works in a similar vein, and each of the over one hundred images in Lapdancer are a powerful complement to the real-life written testimonials. These images seek neither to glamorize strip clubs, nor belittle them. The clubs themselves are functional, no nonsense--a dancer is picking up bills from a dirty floor near the pole, or one is performing for a customer next to the sink behind the bar, a plastic cup. Faces here are bored and aroused, at times laughing while other times captured with a melancholic longing. Somehow, out of these simple and almost rudimentary environments, a performer is able to convince a customer of a fantasy for a few moments. Seeing these photographs feels akin to looking at a familiar theater production, one full of glitz and glamour, but viewed from backstage instead of the audience. Lapdancer shows us the grit and the dust, the worn edges and labor that goes into making the magic happen. It feels like journalistic photography, but stronger somehow--perhaps because the portraits of her customers and dancers are so candid. These faces show boredom as well as arousal, momentary joy, as well as levity, longing, even wistfulness.
Thankfully for us, Beasley was able to win the trust of her subjects sufficiently so that we may see them--not only outside the shadowy interiors of the strip club, but also in the reality of their lives, without the fantasy.
The men and women Beasley interviews and documents here in Lapdancer gaze into the camera simply, at times defiantly, and never apologetically. They are who they are, doing what they are doing. The book is a provocative invitation to step inside its pages, look around and listen. The book´s images and stories strip away artifice, giving us a tantalizing tease--but they never fully reveal. That mystery is a big part of what makes Beasley´s work so strong.