A new addition to the voices surrounding America’s obsession and repulsion with prostitution has recently been sounded. Photographer Mark McAndrews is publishing a book called Nevada Rose, featuring photos and essays about all 29 legal brothels in Nevada, creating what he considers to be the first complete portrait of these institutions. He’s using Kickstarter to raise the funds to print digital copies of the photos for distribution, but the itself book is being published in 2011. McAndrews’ past work seems focused on working-class American life, featuring motels, mechanics, and waitresses, to name a few of his landscape and portrait projects.
In the video, McAndrews’ says that he’s “…always been drawn to the uneasy mix between reality and fantasy that exist [in brothel life]”, which I think accurately describes the appeal of work like this to many Americans. How else can we explain the popularity of the HBO show Cathouse, about the Bunny Ranch (which is featured in the book, with interviews with owner Dennis Hof and Brooke Taylor)? Or with other forms of prostitution, from glamourous shows like Secret Diary of a Call Girl, to the research Steven Levitt did about prostitutes on the South Side of Chicago?
McAndrews describes his interest in this fantasy, explaining that “…the interactions have the choreographed feel of a mini-play, all the time set against a backdrop that’s meant to evoke a sense of extravagance, or of a false familiarity of a home-away-from-home.” But he also believes that, “The work itself is very much a cultural survey of a slowly fading chapter in American history,” which I have a very hard time believing.
While I think any work that exposes truth behind a commonly misunderstood industry like the brothel system is admirable, I wonder how much books like this accomplish. McAndrews takes beautiful photos, but perhaps if his work wasn’t considered so taboo or rare, our society would be better off. Of course that’s not his goal; he is an artist first and foremost, which removes a lot of political agenda from it. But despite the complications behind the work that these women do, I can’t help but think that their lives must be safer and happier than those of the women Steven Levitt researched.
I will always remember being in Baltimore late at night, walking back to my friend’s dorm. We passed a van, where a woman was crawling out of the back, pulling down her skirt and adjusting her fishnets. The van quickly sped away, and she kindly said “Hello, have a good night,” with a real Southern drawl, and then walked off. It was a split-second of a moment, but both my friend and I knew what she had been doing. I know nothing else about her life, and her choices. But I do know that the demand for her type of work isn’t going away. But I’m certain her support network could be better. At the very least, she could get out of that van.