Martha Rosler describes Susan Meiselas's multi-year project Carnival Strippers, and the intensive engagement Meiselas developed in relation to her subjects. View more from this series.
My name is Martha Rosler. And we’re looking at a work by Susan Meiselas from her project Carnival Strippers.
Documentary requires an intensive engagement with the people you are producing images of. Who are the women who are standing like this, looking like this, wearing cheap, practically g-string costumes like this, who don’t look too sexy in what’s supposed to be a sex show? The project was photographic, but it also was much more than that—it also involved not only audio recordings but getting to know the women over a number of years.
I thought it was extraordinarily difficult to produce a work that was about women whom she didn’t know, who were in an unappreciated, unloved class of women, who were certainly not admired for their professions, at a time when women were exploring what it meant to have a body and to have a profession and to have a job.
Most of the feminist work that I was doing had to do with representing women’s bodies based on already-existing representations. This photograph shows the First Lady of the United States, Pat Nixon, in an official portrait. And normally, what I would be inserting into a scene like that would be an image of a woman who is in the battle zone in Vietnam. But I decided to use a different iconic image, that of Faye Dunaway in her apotheosis in the film Bonnie and Clyde. That film was a kind of a symbolic cultural product for my generation; it represented our feeling of being hunted and totally unreconciled to the discourses of power.
I see the whole series of House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home as acts of resistance against the war, and a form of propaganda against it. And I see Susan Meiselas’s project as a way of trying to reformulate and resist images of women who are in positions of very low status and very little power in society, and to talk about them as fully realized subjects, without glorifying what they do to make a living.