Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Camera Night At The Ivar

The Ivar in the 1980s
I was in LA for 4 days last week. Most of my time there was spent shooting the streets (more on that in a future post) but I did manage to squeeze in a visit to a single photo exhibit. And boy was it worthwhile.

Camera Night At The Ivar at Drkrm Gallery documents a period during the early 80s when The Ivar Theatre in Hollywood opened its doors to photographers Sundays and Tuesdays. This was back in the heyday of strip clubs before dance poles or shaving, and public genital displays still bore the tint of hidden mystery. No TVs or T-bone steaks for distraction, just a woman on a bare stage with 5 minutes to undress and spread em.

Since most strip clubs expressly prohibit candid photography, Camera Night was a unique opportunity. The scene drew photographers from all over, many with national reputations. Collected in this show alone are Norman Breslow, Bill Dane, David Fahey, Anthony Friedkin, Michael Gurske, Ryan Herz, and Paul McDonough. Judging by the number of shooters visible in the photos (Winogrand can be seen lurking in the background of several) that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Ryan Herz, The Ivar Theatre, 1982

I suppose one could get similar photographs paying a studio model to expose herself, but the resulting photos wouldn't be much different from common porn. What separates the Camera Night photos from such pictures is that they depict not only the strippers but the crazy voyeuristic scene surrounding it, a sort of sociological study of shared sexual experience, ritual observation, and male fantasy. Photographers cluster around the vaginas like paparazzi around celebrities, some mere inches from the origin of the world. Many in background also peer through cameras. Some men in the audience stare bug-eyed. Some masturbate. A few look bored. Some manage to do all at once. 

Regardless of activity all attention is unified. Everyone watches the stripper. But alas, even the center cannot hold. After looking at photo after photo in Drkrm the strippers fade in importance and the real subject becomes clear: voyeurism. These photos depict the act of photographing as an animal instinct. Observation, patience, stalking that delirious moment of proper shutter release, and then exposure.

The scene feels real. The photographs feel real. It's an authentic look inside a fleeting moment in history. Then as now, nothing was as mysterious as a fact clearly described.

The prints in the show are excellent. Most are vintage black and white silver gelatins. Using a flash 12 inches from someone's crotch one might expect flesh tones to lose shadow detail, but instead they disport a rich tonality. These guys were pros at printing as well as shooting. Some of the close shots depict a pubic form as intricate and convoluted as an abstract painting. They resemble ariel photos of a verdant jungle, or perhaps graffiti drawn by a very fine hand.

A few of the images --by Paul McDonough and Bill Dane for example-- have appeared in various books over the years. But the vast bulk of these have never been shown. They were curated by Drkrm for this single exhibition which is unlikely to travel or be repeated due to its graphic nature. Even Los Angeles has turned a prudish eye, with no local press willing to review it. The show ends on November 25th. If you live in the LA area, I'd highly recommend seeing it this week. An exhibition catalog (cover left) is available here in both print and digital form.  

Camera Night At The Ivar is at Drkrm Gallery, 727 Spring St., Los Angeles, CA through 11/25/12


Stan B. said...

Always wondered where these originated. Can't believe it wasn't even reviewed! Back in the day, everyone knew B&W was art...

Blake Andrews said...

NPR affiliate in LA was briefly interested in reviewing but recoiled after seeing how graphic the work was. Oh well.

Bill Dane said...

? My pictures are tiny out n about cuz the 'graphic-stuff' never interested me.

Anonymous said...

NSFW in caption would have been nice

Blake Andrews said...

Why are you reading B at work?