A photographic meditation on American culture and identity, American Stripper sets out to explore and document a geographically, and demographically, dispersed range of that great nation’s striptease performers.
This the latest project from one of London’s most accomplished photographers, Peter Westh (the man behind images for the likes of Elle, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair). In American Stripper Peter seeks to explore the complexities of the so-called American Dream through a focus on the multifaceted lives of its female subjects. In development for over fifteen years, his project joins – and indeed extends - a long and an illustrious tradition of artistic works, which through the form of the road journey, goes in search of aspects of American society not usually explored. Thus American Stripper seeks to document its subjects both at work and at leisure, endeavoring, on the one hand, to capture the complex and controversial theatre of the female body on sexual display, whilst on the other, focusing on the ‘behind the scenes’ world; which, of course, is not disconnected from the former. This aspect of the project is indebted to another long-standing artistic tradition in painting and photography: that of representing the backstage world of performing women; which, in turn, can be traced back to the paintings of Henri De Toulouse Lautrec in late C19th Paris (if not beyond) and many others since. Hence, there will be a focus on lives in context: backstage, daily routines, personal lives and relationships. Whilst one imperative is to document - exploring performers and their audiences, of putting lives in context - the other objective is more self-consciously aesthetic. Here Peter will more directly draw upon his experience as a former fashion photographer, creating iconic, ‘glamorous’, graphically arresting but more conspicuously ‘constructed’ images. For instance, one strategy in this regard is to shoot the striptease performers outside of their ‘normal’ environment and to instead photograph in various ‘iconic’ sites with more explicit connections to broader national narratives: examples would include sites of deindustrialization, such as a decaying disused car factory in Detroit or a disused coal mine; but performances would also be framed against active industrial plants. These would sit alongside other locations where one would not expect to see the female body performing in such a fashion, like the California and Mojave deserts or along Route 66. Other examples might be an aging Las Vegas casino rooftop, or an army base, as well as some of the nation’s most iconic and dramatic cultural backdrops. This latter part of the project stresses the importance of generating a sense of incongruity, of opening up contradictions among these different areas: of the sexual authority of the striptease performer, the female body as the site of sexual desire, the body as sexual commodity , as well as the sexualized body’s relationship to broader national myths. This sense of opening up contradictions will also be invoked and reinforced by the two visual languages employed – between the documentary, both behind the scenes and in striptease clubs – and how these sit uneasily against the more ‘composed’ images that are more self-consciously iconic. In other words, this project seeks to be a heady mix of both the conventionally and the unconventionally glamorous. As such, it seeks to marry two ideas that don’t usually belong together: to celebrate the performing bodies in question, but also to place this glamour in an unusual place, to raise questions in the audience.
American Stripper’s overall narrative is inspired by the revered road movie and like the cult American subgenre it will take the form of a travelogue basing itself in both the major cities and out of way places. Peter envisages the project taking six - eight months to complete. Its ambitiousness involves certain challenges, such as garnering the trust of the various performers involved, of taking time to get the know the people concerned and representing them in fashion that avoids easy or naïve moral censure. As Peter has put it:
‘I’m not after pinups, or calendar girls. I’m after personalities and arresting images, of getting at the ironies. Even though I’ve carried this project around with me for over fifteen years, I only feel mature enough to tackle it now. But it brings together two sides of my career, many years formerly – around twentyfive - as a fashion photographer and my more recent incarnation as an art photographer with gallery exhibitions over the last 6 years or so’.
The project will reach its apogee in late summer 2018 in a photographic fine art exhibition in two locations simultaneously - London and Los Angeles – and the whole project will be documented in an accompanying ‘making of’ feature length video. Subsequently, December 2018 will see the release of the final hardback: AMERICAN STRIPPER