April 20, 2008 - 5B4 Photography Blog

Fantasies by Lisa Kereszi

The world of strip clubs and burlesque shows have always invited the imagination but often banned the camera. Surely this is because these places offer commerce that cameras can tap into that would be unfair to the performers if they were not offered their cut (one prime example of how photography, in its public image, has become less innocent).

It is a world that is filled with the air of the taboo even as every other television or print advertisement sells women’s bodies as a commodity or gives notion of their potential dominance. It is also a world that nowadays splits men into two types — usually defined by class; those that willingly admit and boast about frequenting such clubs (the working class) and others that try to veil their interest by wrapping it up in the often misapplied intellectualism of feminism and political correctness (the bourgeois). Lisa Kereszi takes us into the world of the modern burlesque show with her new book Fantasies published by Damiani.

The modern burlesque show seems to be less an invitation to look than a dare to do so. This is a modern world where it is more acceptable to admit to transgressive acts like a visit to a strip club, and because of this openness, the performers have embraced these perceived transgressions and the justifiable camp that seems to serve as an excuse. It is a world where the performers themselves wink at the audience by adopting stage names such as The World Famous Bob and Dirty Martini.

Lisa Kereszi within the first few pages lays out the similarities and differences with the modern burlesque show and its precursor. The first photograph puts us at the entrance of a pair of private booths in a club in Miami Beach — on its walls, held by pairs of chrome poles, are metallic illustrations of high heel shoed legs offering up a cancan. The next spread of pictures features the dancer Dirty Martini in ballet slippers and balancing ‘on point’ in a moment of exaltation while on the opposite page an illustration painted on the wall of two busty silhouetted women grasping the same dancing pole sets the example for real life sitting opposite to fantasy.

The other fantasy that Kereszi alludes to has nothing to do with those in audience of the show. The women who are performing invest themselves in creating a persona, and in carrying that forth to the stage they are acting out their own fantasies. For a few moments, before the crowd, they become whomever they wish. One dons a bunny costume in a self-mocking gesture of innocence; another becomes a topless Catwoman who struts the stage in black leather; another becomes an innocent country girl who is too shy to meet the eyes of the audience while she unbuttons her red dress.

Kereszi uses still lives of the club interiors, portraiture, and a healthy dose of photographing on-the-fly in her descriptions but Kereszi’s talent seems to lie more with the still life than the others with a few exceptions. Most of Kereszi’s interiors seem to have been made during the off hours when the sun is still present and the bar back is busy bringing the night’s liquor from the basement. They are exposed to be as superficially seductive as the women who will perform on stage. Kereszi concentrates on their wear and tear which translates as part seediness (often touched by humor) and part history and evidence of the last ‘good time.’

The cover image is one that may be the best in the book for all of its summoning of all of the contradictions in this work between real life and fantasy, history and contemporary, and internal and external lives. The flaw of the book for me is that there is a very clear hierarchy in the work. The still lives clearly win our interest and stand up to repeated visits while many of the portraits are simply dull and poorly described.

Fantasies is a well designed if conservative approach to such a non-conservative subject matter. It is decently printed although I know Kereszi’s work to be more technically savvy than some of it looks here.

One added bonus is the essay by the great Lynne Tillman called Mental Pictures which starts off the book. Tillman is wise and perceptive to not only human nature but to photography’s twists and turns and all of its complexity. In tandem with Kereszi’s talent, it is worth the price of the show.

By Jeffrey Ladd

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