Lapdancer by Juliana Beasley
I have never been to a strip club, but they hold a cultural fascination for me -- for anyone, I imagine, who has never been there. The anonymous sexuality, abandonment of your everyday shell and access to unquestioned intimacy -- as long as you have the money to pay for it. The strict rules set up around lawless nudity; the powerful downtrodden. The many irreconcilable elements of the strip club world create an intriguing aura that Juliana Beasley is counting on in her book, Lapdancer.
Beasley gives her audience access to this world without having to open the door of a club. Her book is a voyeuristic experience that gives hints of the underlying issues of greed and attraction; Beasley remains an objective guide in her place behind the camera and allows the customers and dancers to offer their stories in notes and interviews.
Ms. Beasley herself spent 8 years as a dancer and offers her story in somewhat repetitive introductions and conclusions. She understands the many different reasons that women give for joining the stripper business, and iterates that money is the most common one. She describes the work as “a lucrative business venture,” and “another day at the office,” but the distinctions between stripping and any more mundane job always peek through; the sexily-whispered words of a dancer as she coaxes a client to buy a lap-dance, the fundamentally humiliating burrow of a customer’s rejection, and the bone-wearying night on the job.
One particularly impacting self-portrait shows Beasley counting the night’s take while sitting on the tiled floor of a bathroom or dressing room. Hundreds, fifties, twenties: bills of all denominations are stacked in messy piles between her spread legs. A large bruise discolors her knee. Her mouth is a line and her hands cover her ears as she stares at the camera. The flotsam of the night -- a make up bag, a pointy-toed shoe -- is strewn around. The sexual allure, commercialism, the hiding provided by a costume all illustrate a place that most of us don’t venture to ever, let alone on our daily grinds.
The portraiture is not consistently good, unfortunately. Beasley does capture disturbingly intimate moments and facial expressions that evoke an amazing range of emotion -- from laughter to pity, from disgust to understanding. But in an impulse to open the eyes of the lap-dance uninitiated she forgot to discriminate between a picture that is eye-opening or meaningful and one that merely portrays the foggy gestures, beer bottles and cigarette butts of a strip-club party moment. Certainly the red-lit gloom will not always provide the ideal conditions for a photograph, so perhaps the book would have benefited from a sharper editing eye. Some of the pictures made me question the stated mission of the book -- to explore the relationships between customers and dancers within the confines of the club. Indeed, many of the client and dancer stories that Beasley intersperses with the pictures detail the relationships that grow outside of the club. These moments where I start to question Beasley’s statements, especially when taken with a blandly moralistic poem written presumably by Beasley, undermine my trust in the guide through this sordid world. Is Beasley telling me the truth about the positive aspects of her experience as a lapdancer?
A comment in one of the dancer’s stories is telling: “In this kind of business, you can’t believe anything.” Can you believe that a Yale-educated photographer who apprenticed with Annie Leibovitz truly cast her lot with the disenfranchised, is able to tell their stories honestly?
Ultimately, it may not matter for the purposes of Lapdancer. The curious readers, the ones who don’t want to open the club doors, will still open the cover of the book and find what they are looking for: power and intimacy alongside weakness and addiction. Beasley’s camera provides a straightforward look at the absurdity and beauty that populate one of America’s most enduring subcultures.
Lapdancer by Juliana Beasley