“The Gold Painted Stripper”. It’s the kind of caption that is descriptive, pragmatic and to the point. We see a woman, dressed in a bikini, drinking a glass of water in, what appears to be, the backstage area of a strip club. She is photographed in profile thus accentuating her gesture and the shape of her body. She appears relaxed and undisturbed by the American photographer Weegee, a dimunitive, excentric and well-known visitor to New York’s nightclubs. Judging by the woman’s demeanour, Weegee might have asked for her permission to be photographed. He might have even payed her to pose for him. Weegee’s gaze is thus comparable to the gaze of the paying clientele in the strip club. A gaze that desires the complete uncovering of the body, yet at the same time, a desire that is never entirely fulfilled. As Giorgio Agamben has remarked in his book ‘Nudities’:
‘Strip-tease, that is to say, the impossibility of nakedness, is … the paradigm for our relationship with nudity. As an event that never reaches its completed form, as a form that does not allow itself to be entirely seized as it occurs, nudity is, literally, infinite: it never stops occuring.’
The stripper is part of this cycle of ‘teasing’, infinitely, the gaze of the clientele, but also, Weegee’s gaze, and by extension, our gaze. This cycle is signified by the water that she is drinking, suggesting that she is refreshing herself in preparation for the next show. And so, the cycle continues, show after show. And while the performances might vary (here she has covered her body in glittery gold paint), the premise will always remain the same. Although the photograph appears to be taken in the backstage area, the stripper, as a professional performer, did not seize to act towards the camera. She remains graceful, despite the rugged surroundings, holding her head up high, her body glowing in an otherwise murky world of vice. Compared to Susan Meiselas photographic series ‘Carnival Strippers’ from the 1970s, Weegee’s impression is far more sympathetic towards his subject. By photographing the woman from a lower vantage point, he makes her look strong and assertive. The sympathy is expressed, again, in the glass of water signifying that the stripper, despite being caught in an endless cycle of representing her body, has also real bodily needs.
Like in many of Weegee’s photographs however, the descriptive caption is not telling the whole story. Here, the caption simply confirms something that we can already see in the photograph. Much harder to identify are the men entering to room in the background. Their presence elevates the photograph to a complex narrative. Why are they entering the room? Who are they? Why is one man hiding his face? And, in particular, what is the content of the paper bags he is carrying? The hiding of the face deeply affects our reading of the potential content of the paper bags. While the face hides behind the stretched out hand, the content of the bag, too, is kept ‘undisclosed’. This hiding and veiling stands in complete contrast to the woman, who is almost completely bare. This was Weegee’s preferred working environment: a world of extremes, of paradoxes, of tensions and secrects.
The immidiate understanding of the man’s actions might be explained by Weegee’s very own presence. Here is a man who simply does not want to be photographed by Weegee. The pervasive flash picking up every little detail and the ‘shooting’ of his subjects earned Weegee a reputation for relentless and sometimes shocking revelations. His photographs of car crashes are bordering on the pornographic, and, earily foreshadow the scandalous Paparazzi photographs of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash.
Several Hollywood films have, in one form or another, made a reference to Weegee’s infamous persona: ‘The Untouchables’ featuring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery includes a scene in which a short built and over-eager photographer joins the police squad on their raids against New York’s crime syndicates during the prohibition era. In ‘The Road to Perdition’, a character played by Jude Law depicts a photographer obsessed with criminality and the underworld. This obsession is carried so far that the photographer himself turns into the criminal. Not only his photographs, but actually, Weegee himself has become and integral part of American visual culture.
This delight in the underworld is also apparent in ‘The Gold Painted Stripper’. The men entering the room, one can assume in the larger context of Weegee’s work, are part of this underground world. They are, as it appears in the photograph, literally, stepping down into Weegee’s trap. Stunned by his presence, the man raises his hand because has has something to hide. The mug that didn’t want to be shot. The distinct and troubled relationship between surveillance, voyeurism, identification and crime, all present in the man’s hand seeking to avoid, not the gold paint glowing from the woman’s body, but the flash of Weegee’s penetrating camera.
For more on this topic, please read Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.