One of the byproducts of photography being a relatively young, and for a long time under-appreciated, medium is that the scholarship on even the most central and influential bodies of work is still sometimes incomplete. Forgotten photographers routinely emerge from dusty archives and storage boxes, and acknowledged masters and classic bodies of work are intermittently revisited, revised, and reissued, often with layers of new discoveries that further inform what we thought we knew. This leads to a flux of accumulated knowledge that keeps us on our toes, as just when we think we’ve got all the answers, something unexpected inevitably appears that forces us to reevaluate our well-worn conclusions.
Susan Meiselas’ early 1970s project Carnival Strippers, which took form as a now-historically critical photobook in 1976, seems like the kind of landmark photography project that would have been thoroughly poured over by experts long ago. In recent years, copies of the original photobook had become increasingly scarce and unaffordable, so it was meticulously reissued in 2003 by Steidl, thereby broadening the potential audience for its ground-breaking (and increasingly socially relevant) visual storytelling. More attention led to a new round of interest in the project, and Richard Woodward had a chance to take a thoughtful look back at Carnival Strippers for Collector Daily a few years ago, when prints from the project were reprised in a 2018 gallery show (here). With nearly fifty years now piled up between the original picture making and our particular moment, it seems plausible to think that the key parameters of Carnival Strippers are now essentially fixed and well-understood.
But not so fast – it seems we had to wait for the (potentially) last reversal in the screenplay. In a plot twist we’ve seen before, more boxes were unearthed from deep storage, and in them, a treasure trove of Carnival Strippers material was re-discovered – Meiselas’ project notebooks and notecards; her original interview transcripts; some book maquettes, prototypes and design ideas; her marked up contact sheets; some annotated project prints; and all kinds of other ephemera from the project. Why all of this stuff lay hidden and didn’t emerge during the earlier round of revisiting remains a bit of a mystery, but it did, and so we find ourselves rewriting the history once again. A handsome two-volume book set has now been published (again by Steidl), combining yet another reprint of the original photobook with an in-depth supporting volume surveying all of this enriching background material.
Yet another round of gallery shows to support this kind of new information wouldn’t normally be needed, but those overlooked boxes also held one more unexpected lightning bolt – a series of heretofore unseen color prints. It seems that nobody knew about these color images – not the scholars, not the critics, hardly even Meiselas herself, who seems to have forgotten about them. But here they are, in modern reprints from the original Kodachrome slides, rudely upending the agreed-upon narrative of this project.
This gallery show consists of 14 of these color images, and the supporting photobook includes roughly another dozen, which are reproduced in the selected book spreads above. What they tell us is that Meiselas was making pictures in both black-and-white and in color throughout the project, as there are color images dated in all of the years from 1972 to 1975. In some cases, we can actually see that Meiselas was shooting with two cameras around her neck, as there are several variant frames made seconds apart in both black-and-white and color.
While Meiselas may have been open to both approaches when she began the project, and continued to make some color frames here and there as the years passed, she incrementally began to favor black-and-white – the difference in the raw counts of images in both formats is clear. One logic that has been put forth is that the color film was too slow in the low light, no-flash situations she was generally shooting in inside and at night, and that she naturally gravitated away from color in those moments to avoid blur. Whatever the reason, the color works eventually got entirely edited out, in favor of the all black-and-white Carnival Strippers we now know.
That Meiselas was experimenting with color isn’t altogether unexpected, as color photography was becoming more widespread in both commercial and photojournalism circles throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. The same was also somewhat true in fine art circles, with many American photographers wrestling with color in the early 1970s (as a milestone to match against, Eggleston’s Guide was published in 1976 in conjunction with his MoMA show). And while Meiselas’ Prince Street Girls project from 1976-1979 (reviewed in a 2017 gallery show here) was shot in black-and-white, when she went to Nicaragua at the end of the decade (reviewed in a 2020 gallery show here), she was back to using color.
The question that we tend to consider when thinking about photographers who straddled the transition point between black-and-white and color was how well they “saw in color”. Many black-and-white photographers simply kept making the same compositions, but now with color as a decorative addition; far fewer embraced the risks of re-inventing themselves and of thinking about the new ways that color could transform and animate their photographs. From the visual evidence presented here, Meiselas was certainly aware of how her color photographs could tell different kinds of stories.
The carnival tents and booths were nearly all brightly colored, with bold banners, graphics, lettering, stripes, and other visual effects designed to draw passersby in closer, and many of Meiselas’ color pictures simply document these features, with an eye for the ways female bodies have been portrayed, from seductive silhouettes to writhing bodies and one smiling nude woman posed in a martini glass. In a few more resonant images, Meiselas takes those available colors and builds them into wider stories, with echoes of blue between wall stripes and a man’s blue jeans and the similar arms raised poses of a nude woman in a mural and a bored man in a yellow tank top working in the booth. A more intimate example matches the yellow shirt of one of the dancers (during a daytime break) with a slice of billowing yellow tent fabric behind her; this kind of pairing can’t have been accidental, so Meiselas must have been thinking about how to best use the available features of this stylized setting to frame various scenes and portraits.
Night provided another possible entry point for color: in black-and-white, night often becomes cool, noir, almost somber, but in color, Meiselas could use the falling of twilight and the warm glare of the carnival lights to tease out more illicit moods. Deep blue and purple skies are combined with seething lights to set the atmosphere, the surrounding darkness amplifying the sense of attraction. In another image, Meiselas uses a grim rainy day as a backdrop for a color pairing of red taillights and the burning ember of a dancer’s cigarette – the kind of picture that just wouldn’t have the same melancholy mood in black-and-white.
Still other photographs use a pop of unexpected color to enliven otherwise drab or depressing settings. Sparkly dancer costumes in red and blue seem to jump out of the mundane surroundings of backstage, and shiny stage colors, in the form of costumes, lights, and nearby drapery, attempt to add a bit of glamour to the proceedings. Meiselas is even able to use brown skin as a compositional element, setting it against a painted white backdrop with angled lettering that echoes the bend of the arm; up close, stretch marks on the dancer’s belly pull us back to the choices and realities of the women who have taken this path.
Part of what made the original Carnival Strippers photobook so innovative, was its rich use of images and text together, where we could essentially hear the dancer’s speaking in their own voices and telling their own stories. This show offers some of the original ephemera that became those powerful texts, including handwritten notes, typed transcripts, and other pages, which are shown next the the framed images on the wall, in a manner not unlike the book itself. Here, the installation feels wholly archival, with the fragile pages presented like lost artifacts.
Like any show of contact sheets, outtakes, or other supplemental material to a well-known project, this one incrementally adds to our knowledge, filling in gaps and empty spots more than transforming the larger conclusion. In color, Meiselas’ pictures do feel altogether different; what’s exciting is just how effective many of the color images were at capturing the mixture of eye catching gaudiness and tedious dinginess that epitomized the carnival booths. While color didn’t end up being the way she ultimately wanted to tell the story, it’s clear from these recent rediscoveries that there were alternate approaches percolating around in her head the whole time. As an early 20s photographer just getting started, in what has become a long and successful career, Meiselas was absolutely seeing in color – but in the end the project needed to go in another direction, and she smartly followed it where it led.