Inside American Brothels: The Rumpus Interview With Marc McAndrews

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Marc McAndrews visited twenty-nine brothels in Nevada over five years to photograph the women who worked as legal prostitutes in their environment. The result is Nevada Rose, his upcoming book containing over 250 images. We spoke on the phone about his experiences in Nevada and debated fiercely about sex work. One thing we agreed upon is that there are many misconceptions about the lives of sex workers, and we both hope to change that. Through his lens, McAndrews hints at what’s missing in the room by showing the quiet moments. His starkness pinpricks the fantasy of brothels, which made me wonder who he was in the context of creating Nevada Rose.

I came of age when the Lacanian gaze was all the rage. Issues of power and vision were paramount to any discussion of art and culture. The gaze was suspect, arising from a myopic male voyeur; and the feminist project was to disrupt that gaze. In Nevada Rose, the working class people in the photos are not sexualized. They’re humanized, not eroticized. McAndrews is more interested in evoking a world, rather than objectifying its inhabitants, in an effort to honor through representation every day people and the labor they do. In this way, his work echoes that of August Sander (1876-1900) in his depiction of miners and laborers, as well as Irvin Penn’s collection of working class people, which is showing right now at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. All three photographers seem preoccupied with “humanity” as constructed through working class folks who stare directly to the camera in a frontal pose.

"Safire"

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Sapphire

Nevada Rose isn’t limited to women or even prostitutes. It includes other images: cooks, a maid, clients, very stylized interiors and carefully chosen details.

"Love Pillow"

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"Girl Show"

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The Rumpus: What’s up with the highly symbolic Cinderella slippers and why did you choose this image to begin your series?

Marc McAndrews: “Mona’s Ranch” was actually the first image I shot in the project. That image represents to me when I finally felt that I had my bearings in the brothels. After trying unsuccessfully to gain access to the larger Carson City brothels, I was directed out east to Elko, Nevada. That’s where I met Carli, who was the Big Sister at Mona’s Ranch. I remember I was so nervous when I walked in. I showed up with my notebook and a little binder of tear sheets and Polaroids of recent portraits I had taken and gave my prepared summary of what I was looking to shoot in the house. Carli agreed to let me shoot and invited me into the kitchen. She offered me a glass of water and gave me a quick rundown of how things worked in the house and what to expect. When she was finished she reached over and grabbed my hand gently and said, “Listen Honey, you gotta relax. No one’s gonna hurt you here.” That actually really put me at ease. She knew I was nervous and she didn’t care. There was no need for me to pretend that I was an old pro at this. It was very comforting. I ended up living in the house for 5 days.

After our talk she left me alone to get settled. As I was loading stuff in I saw those shoes sitting there exactly like that. I went and got my camera and some lights and took the photograph. It’s a good starting point for the work because I think it sums up what alot of people think of when they think of brothel interiors – rope lighting and flocked wallpaper. It’s also good, because the viewer starts with that image, as I did, and then gets to know all of the many aspects of the interior world of a brothel.

"Lucite Shoes"

Rumpus: I put “humanity” in quotes above because I’d like to talk about how “humanity” is constructed through your work. There’s an assumption that these are pictures of honest working class stiffs who are “keeping it real.” But it could also be argued that this is bullshit and there is no “real” because these images are carefully edited and posed; there is no real, just convention and its variations. Which brings me to you: What are your values and how do they manifest in the work? This is important because Nevada Rose is a deliberately edited and crafted version of brothel life. You seem to be interested in portraying the working class, their environment and tastes. What does this say about you?

McAndrews: This is a very interesting question. My goal was to not impart my own personal views into the work. I actually wanted to try to almost de-socialize myself and to lose any opinions I may have had simply due to the fact that I was raised in a society that views prostitution to be dirty and illicit. I tried to be as open to it as possible. The “values” that I guess I did bring to it would be to not pre-judge people. I learned pretty quickly that, while parts of it were exactly like what I thought I was going to find, brothel life was much different than what I had in any way imagined it to be.

Rumpus: How was brothel life different that you expected? Where did the “dirty, illicit” message come from? Can you say more about your childhood and the values you absorbed in your surroundings regarding sex and sex work?

McAndrews: I always imagined all types of prostitution would be like what I used to see on the streets in New York, but I was wrong. America is very timid about anything to do with sex. We’re all raised and have it ingrained into us that sex is bad and needs to be repressed. One message was: If you masturbate, you go blind. Or, if you participate in anything other than vanilla sex you’re somehow a damaged human being. Well I’m not blind and I’m not a damaged human being (although some would argue the jury’s still out on that one). Meanwhile some of the most outspoken socially conservative politicians and social leaders are some of the most base. How many molestation victims of the Catholic Church have to come out before we begin to reject their lecturing on how one should live their lives? Let’s not forget outspoken Family Values man and potential Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich had an affair and pressured his cancer stricken wife to sign divorce papers while she was still in the hospital. I’m not blind, I’m not a damaged human being and I have yet to leave a cancer stricken wife so I guess on that one, I’m MM – 1, NG – 0.

Growing up my family was very open and fairly unashamed about sex. Both my parents worked in the medical field and believed in educating their children and arming us with facts versus dogma. We weren’t left to figure it out for ourselves spreading rumors with our friends. If my sisters and I had any questions or maybe adopted a different lifestyle, my parents didn’t freak out and condemn; they didn’t shun us to the furthest reaches of society, they talked to us.

Rumpus: The context of who you are and why you chose the subject matter of brothels makes me curious. What exactly is your training and class position, and how does it relate to your interest in this group photographed in Nevada Rose?  For instance, what is the difference between photographing Joan Didion and photographing a prostitute?

"Joan Didion"

McAndrews: I went to college in New York and I have a degree. I’ve done a number of lectures at various colleges, and one of the things that I’ll tell the students is that unless you go on to grad school it’s probably a better idea to go get a job in the industry and use that money you would’ve spent to fund some long term project. I believe that up to a point photography works best as an apprenticeship model. As far as class position – can anyone really be objective about their class and background? I’m not familiar with the official governmental breakdown of class these days, but I think it’s all pretty subjective and depends on your surroundings and what you’re used to. I grew up thinking that we were somewhere around middle class/working class. Moving to New York gave me a different understanding of that.

There was a point, right after Bush was elected, that I was living in France. The French love to talk politics. The views of the States that I was hearing from people was much different from what I knew growing up in Pennsylvania. The people I grew up with that were going to work everyday, making just enough to pay bills, dealing with layoffs were nothing like the wealthy, imperialistic Americans the people I knew in France would rail against. It made me think about what I was familiar with and what I grew up with in Pennsylvania. When I returned to the States, I went back to my parents place and began photographing a lot of the people I knew there. That eventually expanded to around the country, and then I eventually ended up in a brothel. Oh, and I try to approach everybody I shoot the same way, I just had less time with Joan Didion.

Rumpus: There must be more to it than “I ended up in a brothel.” Can you say more about how this project first developed and why you chose prostitutes and brothels as your subjects?

McAndrews: There was a time when I used to travel around the country quite a bit, spending weeks at a time just driving around in my van. At one point I stopped into Lovelock, Nevada to relax, shower and look over some of the photographs I had taken recently. It was late August and even though the air conditioner was on full blast, my room was sweltering from being cooked in the sun all day, so I went out front to get some air. There was a group of bikers that were staying a few doors down from me and, with the intention of asking to do their portrait, I bummed a light from them and in return offered them a beer. Instead of asking to do their portrait, their friends joined us and I eventually left them a few days later with a massive hangover. It was the girlfriend of the one of the bikers who first told me about the brothels. I don’t know at exactly what point that she brought it up, but it’s one of the few lucid memories I have of our weekend together. It kind of took me back a bit. I guess I knew that the brothels existed, but going to one hadn’t ever really crossed my mind. I was never a big fan of strip clubs; they always felt desperate and depressing to me. The only strip clubs I had been to were a room full of drunk men yelling at the sight of a nipple, desperately throwing money at women who had no intention of sleeping with them. The legal, sanctioned and regulated sale of sex never crossed my mind until then.

When I got back to New York I started planning a trip out to the brothels, and flew out to Nevada a few weeks later to do some scouting for this project and another one. The first brothel I went to was the Bunny Ranch in Carson City. I didn’t call them ahead of time, I had no introduction; I just showed up early one evening. That approach, coupled with my nerves, didn’t work out so well, and I never ended up getting permission to photograph in a brothel until Mona’s Ranch and the Lucite Shoes.

Rumpus: One thing I appreciated about you right away was your obvious sensitivity towards the community of sex workers you’ve been infiltrating while working on Nevada Rose. When we talked on the phone about my letter to the LA Weekly in response to a feature article called “The Family Prostitute,” you took issue with my use of the word “whore” to describe the job description of the women. I didn’t intend to insult anyone when I said that. I think it’s good to call someone what they prefer to be called, especially if you are an outsider. As a sex worker for a very long time, I don’t mind the word “whore,” which has been thrown around like confetti ever since Courtney Love’s tawdry kinder-whore stardom in the 90’s. But, it depends who is saying it. If it was my Dad, I’d be hurt. If it was a gay dude who’s my best friend, I’d laugh. If it was my stripper friends, we would laugh together.

McAndrews: Regarding the “whore” reference, I’m always careful of my word choice and semantics. This is from my experiences where people get offended when I refer to the women as “working girls.” I’m very aware of my place as a male photographer working in this world. I try not to play into any stereotypes. “Working girls” is a term used to describe prostitutes for a very long time; historically it was considered to be more polite than many other colloquial ways of referring to prostitutes. A few years ago I was talking to a class a good friend of mine was teaching; I had never seconded guessed my word usage and used “working girls” throughout the whole talk. The term “working girls” ended up becoming the focus of the Q & A part of the talk. It was a really important learning experience for me in that I became acutely aware of people’s view of my objectivity about the subject.

Rumpus: Regarding the carefully edited, crafted interiors, one question keeps gnawing at me about Nevada Rose: I wanted to know what has been left out and why? For example, did you leave out images that were more arousing or ones that would be considered pornographic?

McAndrews: There weren’t any pornographic images to leave out. We all know the premise of what goes on in a brothel, so I felt shooting the porno shots would be redundant. There were a few things I didn’t photograph. I wanted to do an epilogue with one of the women who was no longer working as a prostitute. My plan was to photograph her and her family and her life now. In the end, that never materialized.

Rumpus: I understand the dilemma of wanting to capture an image of someone and not getting it. I had that experience many times in “Recession Sex Workers.” Some people were resistant or they pulled out at the last minute. What I meant is: What images are you not including in your book Nevada Rose and why?

McAndrews: There are a lot of images left out; that’s what the editing process is all about. Over 5 years I shot so many bedrooms, parlors, laundry rooms, kitchens, etc.; and at a point a bedroom is a bedroom is a bedroom. So images that didn’t add to the work and were repetitive got left out. I was pretty astonished at the level of access I was able to achieve, and shot everything I wanted to shoot.

Rumpus: In “Charlie’s Awards and Poems” and the bulletin board in “Cindy’s Room” the photos suggests that these are prostitutes with an interior life and accomplishments. What story are you telling here besides these are hookers with feelings and aspirations?

"Charlies Awards and Poems"

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"Cindy's Room"

McAndrews: The point of those images isn’t to make a “Hookers with Feelings” afterschool special kind of statement, but to challenge people’s view of prostitutes and what the atmosphere of a brothel is like. The fact that it does humanize the women and makes them more real to the viewer is a plus, but not the goal of the image. Charlie is actually the owner of Sharon’s Bar and Brothel, and his awards wall is filled with poems by him and customers, as well as plaques of appreciation from the local community for all of his contributions. One of the appreciation plaques is from the local Little League baseball team.

"Priscilla"

Rumpus: I think there is something empty (read: lonely) and stiff about the poses of the prostitutes (“Priscilla,” for example). Like they could be seen as zombies, positioned somewhere between the living (cooks, maid, and a male customer) and the world of objects-sets and interiors where everything is artifice.

"Martin and Jesus"

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"'Hillbilly' Greg"

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"Tami, Laundry Maid"

It could also be said that, as in Reality TV, they are playing themselves for us, and for you, the viewer. What do you think?

McAndrews: I don’t see the emptiness or loneliness, but I won’t try to discount that view. Part of the role of an image or body of work is to act as a sort of Rorschach Test.

There is definitely a sense of a constructed reality in the brothels and I was really attracted to that idea, the fluid mix of reality and fantasy that exists there. I think that that’s the basis for a lot of interactions in the houses. You never really know someone’s story, you don’t even know their names because they go by “Desperado,” or “Hillbilly.” So in that sense everybody’s playing to, for and with each other.

Rumpus: Where and when can we see Nevada Rose?

McAndrews: The work is being published by Umbrage Editions and is coming out in 2011. An exhibition is being planned to coincide with the release of the book. A larger preview, as well as a video of me talking about the work, can be seen here:

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Click here to view more photos from Nevada Rose.


Antonia Crane is a writer, teacher and performer in Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir SPENT by Barnacle Books/Rare Bird Lit. Her other work can be found in Playboy, Dame Magazine, Salon, PANK magazine, Black Clock, The Believer, Frequencies, Slake, The Los Angeles Review The New Black, and lots of other places. She can be found running up Griffith Park mountain and here: http://antoniacrane.com. More from this author →