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150 Years of Sex Work, in Pictures (NSFW)

Braquehais2

© Auguste Bruno Braquehais (1823 – 1875)

GeorgeAwde2

© George Awde (b. 1980)

“It’s about a longing for human connection,” says gallerist Daniel Cooney of Scarlet Muse, an exhibition spanning 150 years of sex work as told in photographs. The history of prostitution is, he suggests, deeply enmeshed with that of photography; seekers of pleasure, of love, and of inspiration have turned time and again to doorsteps of the bordellos.

The show includes the work of more than twenty photographers who befriended, courted, employed, or were themselves sex workers. This isn’t a tale about “houses of ill repute” in so far as Cooney set out not to shine light on the “seedy or dirty” but to cut through the provocative nature of the work to reveal a pulsating core of desire.

There’s a tenderness in these images, one that arguably lies at the heart of all photography, but is most fully bared here. Cooney, looking back on EJ Bellocq’s turn-of-the-century New Orleans prostitutes, describes them simply as “loving,” and some of his private favorites from the exhibition are Christer Stromholm’s portraits of his friends and roommates, transgender women in 1950s Paris, for whom he clearly held a great deal of affection.

When asked if perhaps this view of sex work is overly romantic, Cooney responds that no, the pictures certainly take into account the more painful aspects of sex work. The tragedy and danger that come with this line of work are real and palpable, but even in Scot Southern’s work—which the curator identifies as some of the “grittiest” in Scarlet Muse— there’s also love. “He was one of them. He was down and out with them,” explains Cooney of the artist’s relationship with the Los Angeles sex workers he photographed.

Scarlet Muse includes sex workers of all genders, and as the decades wear on, the “male gaze” of the mid-19th century begins to disintegrate. Starting with Auguste Bruno Braquehais, the 19th-century deaf photographer whose subject silences him with a finger to the lips and a parting of the legs, the dynamics of power are never certain. Together, these images become a record of loves gained and loves lost, of appetites sated and unfulfilled, and of people who once upon a time held torches for other people.

Brassai

© Brassai (1899 – 1984)

M15616-7 001

© Eugène Atget (1857 – 1927)

Belloc

© E.J. Bellocq 1873 – 1949

Bellocq4

© E.J. Bellocq 1873 – 1949

LeonLevinstein2

© Leon Levinstein (1910–1988)

SABRINA

© Christer Strömholm (1918 – 2002)

ChristerStromholm6

© Christer Strömholm (1918 – 2002)

BobMizer1

© Bob Mizer (1922 – 1992)

DannyFields6

© Danny Fields (b. 1939)

DannyLyon3

© Danny Lyon (b. 1942)

LarryClark

© Larry Clark (b. 1943)

AnthonyFriedkin2

© Anthony Friedkin (b. 1949)

ScotSothern1

© Scot Sothern (b. 1949)

ScotSothern3

© Scot Sothern (b. 1949)

Alpern3

© Merry Alpern (b. 1955)

MalerieMarder2

© Malerie Marder (b. 1971)

240354_Jane_Nikki

© Jane Hilton

BenjaminFredrickson2008

Benjamin Fredrickson (b. 1980)

ChrisArnade3

© Chris Arnade

Scarlet Muse opens June 9th, 2016, at Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

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