surreal scenes of las vegas strip club culture
Austrian photographer Stefanie Moshammer shares her thoughts on Sin City’s gender dynamics and visual poetry.
Stefanie Moshammer isn't breaking Vegas's cardinal rule, she's sort of bending it. Sure, the Vienna-born photographer's recently published book Vegas and She features pages packed with the stuff of "What happens in, stays in" legend: muscle cars, Mojave mountains, themed hotel rooms, and scantily clad strippers. But Moshammer's series isn't a collection of beautiful facts; it's just as much an invitation to create (and destroy) your own Sin City fantasy.
Her portraits of adult entertainment industry workers and consumers are presented alongside still lifes, landscapes, and text excerpts from the likes of Lewis Carroll's Looking Glass adventures. As pale pinks dance across Cadillacs and desert dust bowls, faux gold columns and emerald marble line modest motel rooms, Moshammer -- like the women she photographs -- masterfully dances between constructed illusion and reality. Ahead of her group show opening on December 10 in Vienna -- and as she gears up for a trip to document Rio de Janeiro (where she also plans to exhibit Vegas and She) -- we speak to Moshammer to find out more.
What first motivated you to photograph Las Vegas?
I went to Las Vegas for a week before I returned to do Vegas and She. That first short stay triggered a desire to explore the irresistible myth and bitter sweetness that surround the place. I was wondering what's behind that surreal dream of sophistication people are searching for in a place that almost completely relies on illusion, fantasy and desire. It felt like a challenge trying to figure out what Las Vegas is about, and how the city influences you when you stay for a longer time.
You're from Vienna, so I'm curious if the mythos of Vegas is the same elsewhere in the world as it is in America. What were some of your expectations before arriving?
Before I really got to know Vegas, my picture of the city was pretty naive; I didn't even think people live or grow up there. In my mind, it was a city full of entertainment and not made for 'normal' living conditions. As a European, you have all these pictures in your head that you only know from movies or stories. Once you get to a place, your perceptions rival the desire to provide a realistic photographic portrayal of where you are.
How did you find your subjects and where did you choose to shoot them?
It's a mix of people: some of whom I got to know better over the course of my stay, and some I only met on the streets. I got to know one stripper named Shannon through a friend of mine; she was my first connecting point to the stripper scene as she introduced me to other women she worked with. I shot them at their apartments or in hotel and motel rooms. I'm grateful they trusted me and my work. I want to show how people, interior and landscape blend together in a place like Las Vegas. My approach was to portray these women in a metaphoric and poetic way to represent the atmosphere and mood of that world they live in, rather than telling a certain story about each woman. I was using the body and the surroundings to invite viewers into narrative and to model a certain reality.
The images capture a really intriguing artificiality -- a faux gold column, a jungle painted mural. What role do fantasy and illusion play?
I was trying to make images that create an ambiguous space, images that take us away from reality and are adrift somewhere between illusion and desire -- a world outside of the ordinary that is as realistic as you can allow. The base is documentary photography, and therein the attachment to reality and the idea of truth. But the series also involves an allegorical and suggestive approach which gives more freedom in how a viewer might tell a story. Vegas is a place full of mystery, wonder and myth. I want viewers to have doubts and questions.
The series is titled Vegas and She. Tell us about the gender dynamics you observed and represented.
I see "Vegas" as a male person, one I dealt with and confronted myself. Being in that city is like getting to know and experiencing somebody. "She" is the other pole, the antithesis. "She" is me, and all the other women shown in the series. Roles of men and women are very clear within the world of strip clubs: male desire is the moving wheel of the machinery. It's a tease and a game played with certain rules and patterns. In that playground, the girls create an artificial identity, an idealized version of men's desire and a constructed space that relies on fantasies.
Did the women feel empowered or exploited? Or is that even an important question to the series?
Stripper rights are really bad in Vegas. They don't have contracts, they're independent contractors and social entrepreneurs. Each day and night, strippers pay a certain amount of money to dance their shift. They can keep all the money they earn with their bodies, minus tip-outs to DJs, bartenders and anyone else they partner with. Depending on each dancer's relationship with the manager, some shifts are better or worse. From a critical point of view, I don't like the dynamics within the stripper scene and the way manager treat their workers; but the strippers I got to know didn't feel exploited by the industry. Shannon told me she likes the kind of independence the job allows for. She works in different clubs around the States and as long as she is able to dance, she will keep doing it. All together, I shot seven women - the youngest was 19, the oldest was 50. They all had different takes on the business, but when it comes down to it, their overriding motivation is to make money. My approach wasn't to bring up a discussion about the working conditions of strippers. Of course it's good if photographs give rise to questions, but I tried to communicate a mood of that world. Vegas and She contains a kind of melancholy that these women feel and experience.
What do you hope people take from this series?
A mood, a question, a discussion, any kind of reaction Hopefully, some glimpse into another world takes people on a journey of their own.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Stefanie Moshammer