Before Susan Meiselas, as a freshly minted member of Magnum Photos, traveled to Nicaragua at the end of the 1970s to document the Sandinista revolution, she established her unflinching eye with Carnival Strippers. This series of photographs, made from 1972–1975, featured women who performed in the two-bit girlie shows at American small town carnivals and rural county fairs, as well as the audiences who frequented their performances. Meiselas captured a subculture of women for whom being ogled was intrinsic to their labor, and who forged relationships with each other built on the shared, understood premise of what it meant to be objectified for a living. But immediately following Carnival Strippers, Meiselas produced another, lesser-known series in her adopted home city of New York. The photographs that comprise Prince Street Girls (1976–1979), currently at Higher Pictures, are now being given their due.
Shot during the years roughly between Carnival Strippers and Nicaragua, June 1978 – July 1979, Meiselas’s black-and-white photographs depict a gang of Italian-American teenage girls who hung around on Prince Street across from her apartment when the downtown Manhattan neighborhood was still known as Little Italy. As the artist recalls in the exhibition’s press materials, she was something of an outsider: “I was the stranger who didn’t belong. Little Italy was mostly for Italians then.” One day, as she rode her bicycle home, Meiselas found herself distracted by a piercing light — the girls were refracting sunlight off a mirror, trying to either catch her attention, or cause her to take a spill from her bike (or both). From this first encounter, Meiselas soon befriended the girls, but the push and pull of their adolescent curiosity combined with a slightly menacing undertone remained a marker of their relationship and inflects the images on display.
The works are culled from two specific years that Meiselas photographed the teenagers: 1976 and 1978 (though an accompanying catalogue for the show draws from a more expansive selection of the photos). The earlier images depict them quite young, about 12 or 13 years old, still very much behaving the way children do: blowing chewing gum bubbles as they mug for the camera, dawdling on the sidewalk in Catholic school uniforms, and gossiping as they sit draped over two-wheeler bicycles. Two years later, these same girls preen at Rockaway Beach, light each other’s cigarettes, and recline languorously against cars parked on the street. In the image “Dee and Lisa on Mott Street” (1976), the eponymous girls lean shoulder-to-shoulder, exchanging a side-eye glance that suggests bravado, affection, and rivalry. In “Dee and Lisa Fight on Prince Street” (1976) they tussle wildly — one girl sobbing as she grabs at the jacket of the other who is trying to flee. The blurred focus of the shot adds to the fraught animalistic nature of their brawl. Despite their youth, their flintiness is undeniable — a testament to the rawer, grittier New York they inhabited in the 1970s. Meiselas captured not only the maturation of the girls, but also a microcosm of the city usurped by New York’s unending evolution. The ethnic enclave of Little Italy is almost no more, shrunken by the sprawl of Chinatown, insidious boutiques, and pie-in-the-sky condos that have now overtaken downtown Manhattan.
What does it mean to be an observer? An onlooker? A voyeur? And where does one way of being cross into the next? When considering these questions artists often tend, consciously or not, to prioritize the male gaze. But with the Prince Street Girls series, Meiselas accomplished something else, something subtle but radical: a body of work devoted entirely to how women regard each other. Taken by another female, who was at the time not much older than they were, the pictures portray only girls, interacting with and performing for each other. Their fledgling but palpable sexuality, seething just below the surface, is devoid of a male perspective. In works like “After School on the Corner of Prince and Mott Streets” (1976) where three of the girls looks on in amusement as a fourth, with her back to the camera, peeks into a store window on tiptoe just as a gust of wind blows her kilt up, and “Carol, Pina, and Lisa in Front of St. Patrick’s Church” (1976) where Lisa looks upon Carol with revulsion as the latter applies lipstick before a compact mirror, we witness them pass judgment on each other. Alternatively, in “Pebbles and JoJo on Baxter Street” (1978), JoJo perches on the hood of a car while Pebbles nestles in her friend’s lap. Meiselas captured them both gazing off to a point outside the frame — a shared private moment tingling with youthful eroticism.
In one of the most striking images, “Pebbles at Rockaway Beach” (1978), one of the girls, clad in her bikini, strikes a dramatic dance pose on the sand, arms thrown overhead. Meiselas has captured her from below, from the same perspective as three of the other girls who sit on beach towels with their backs to the camera, gazing up at Pebbles in the throes of her moves. In a canny framing device, the middle girl lies back as she watches, holding a transistor radio whose antenna appears to bisect Pebbles’s body through the center. The antenna might be a stand in for a finger, pointing scornfully, or alternatively, an eye, one that admires or lusts. The image underscores the broader, interior complications of women gazing upon other women — an intimacy by turns familial and territorial, carnal and tender.
Prince Street Girls continues at Higher Pictures (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 17.