Mascara by Stratton McCrady

“Exactly where the word “mascara” comes from is unclear, but it is most frequently thought to be based from the Spanish word máscara meaning ‘mask’ or ‘stain’ and the Italian word maschera meaning ‘mask’. The Oxford English Dictionary also cites an alternative Catalan definition that describes soot or a black smear, or a Portuguese root (the Portuguese word máscara means ‘mask’, but a similar word, mascarra, means dark stain or smut) There is even strong support for a possible source from the Arabic word maskharah or ‘buffoon’. The Hebrew word משקרות (MaSQROTh) as relating to women's eyes is found in Isaiah 3:16.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Wikipedia

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    On a September evening in New Orleans last year, a gathering of the glamorous Burlesque Festival community offered me and my partner the opportunity to meet, greet, interview, and discuss my photo documentary project titled Acting Out, with performers from around the globe. We arrived fairly early at the venue and found a good spot to begin the process of introductions. A wide range of performers were interested enough to stop and engage with us at this, our first experience of a national event of this kind. Many of the people scheduled to perform were honestly interested in our work and wanted to talk with us. They wanted to know who we were and why we’d come. They pored through my published monograph of portraits from my recent graduate thesis, of the same title, Acting Out. They listened carefully. Among those attending were two extraordinary performers from New Zealand, MisRed and Duchess DeBerry. In this work everyone uses a stage name. I sometimes wonder if I should have one?

    As with all performers, we discussed a variety of different aspects with them. We seek permissions. In this world of image making and in the power exchanges which come along with that, permission is key. We ask permissions (formally, on paper) to shoot during the rehearsals, during the shows themselves, backstage, in the hallways, and sometimes, depending on timing and comfort levels, in the dressing rooms. We contact producers, stage managers, assistants, and group coordinators in order to do this, with every single participant. We ask for permission to post my edited images at a secure site where producers and performers can access them. We delete any images that they do not approve, for any reason. We ask for permission to pursue further permission, at a later date, if we wish to use an image for publication, as we recently did for New England’s Take magazine.  We do as we say we will do, based upon a signed agreement, which is critical for us and for the performers.

    Over this last year, and after attending numerous Burlesque events, we’ve learned that some of these performers have become wary and suspicious of guys with cameras. A few may summarily shut you out. Others will grant permission, as long as you stay very clear and do not expect attention from them. This is perfectly understandable, when considering the control a performer wants to exert over their image. But most Burlesque performers are the opposite and very happy to engage. They are really interested and passionate about the work of photographing their performance and also in portraiture, if there is extra time during a festival.  Festivals generally last a few days, with a lot of workshops, rehearsals, and sometimes two shows each evening that keep performers working until nearly dawn. But they often see what we’re doing as an opportunity for their image to go somewhere unusual and they enjoy the collaboration, so some will try to make time in their schedule for a private portrait session.

    This last piece of the greater discussion always includes the opportunity to make appointments for individual portraits, as reflected in the images these performers see in the book I published for my graduate thesis. The discussion is often of great interest, and it opens a deeper conversation about the project. We discuss Gender studies, Theatre arts studies, and American studies.  They are told they may have as much control over the details of these private portrait sessions as they wish to exercise. MisRed of New Zealand told us the images in the book moved her. “They’re so raw,” she had said.  These two New Zealand performers, in their evening gowns, at the swanky meet and greet, enthusiastically made an appointment with us on the following afternoon for individual portrait sessions. Interestingly, they both arrived the next day, having decided on bathing themes.

    More than ever, simplifying these sessions for a clean, brief, respectful, generous exchange of light and reflection, within a context of conversation, is the whole goal.  If it feels good for us, for the subject, and for the project, I put that down to easing into communication, at the level of what we make, more than what we say. In this work the idea of exchange appears again and again. I’ve become very aware that these people don’t know us. They make a fast decision to trust me as an artist based on my expression of my motivations, (and, based in no small part on how endearing and kind my partner is. They think, “that guy must be Ok or someone that wonderful wouldn’t waste her time with him!”), and on the examples of my images in Acting Out.  For me, the work is so much about the moment, and the light, the perspectives, the angles, and trying to find the true and unusual rather than the safe and expected. It’s a physical and intellectual flow, improvising on what I see. Some photographers plan and construct. In this work I flow.

 Duchess DeBerry

 Duchess DeBerry

    That afternoon, when MisRed appeared with her performer friend, Duchess DeBerry at the location for the session, their concepts, distilled down to minimalist terms, included the use of a shower and towels. I worked first with Duchess DeBerry exploring beautiful window light and her purple hair and yellow dress, and then in an after-shower towel look. With MisRed the conversation ended up happening in two parts. As I shot the Duchess, MisRed put on makeup and explained that she’d always wanted to try a certain look, using heavy mascara, running wild down the face as if while crying, or alternatively, showering. She said she wanted to explore a set of portraits about washing off the costume, the veneer, washing off the act, as it were.  After MisRed explained her concept, she entered the nearby bathroom, turned on the shower, adjusted the temperature so it wouldn’t be too cold, but not so hot as to fog up my lens. At first as we shot, studying and adjusting light, she was all smiles and confidence. But as her mascara ran, she eased into a place that I can only assume she was seeking. She was close to tears and became very quiet. We worked quickly. The entire shoot in the shower was not more than ten minutes.

    Afterward, I asked both women to return to the window with their towels and they goofed  with each other as we made paired portraits.  Over recent years I have studied and conceptualized this approach to portraits, distilling it to a very simple idea. I seek to empower the subject, as much as they are willing to engage. After years of shooting professional actors, (and this is not to denigrate that class of performer), the wonder of the alternative performer I’d discovered in Burlesque really grabbed me. Rather than working within the rigid structures of a canonized repertoire, Burlesque engages a broad range of amateur and semi-professional performers, blazing off the reservation to spend spare time practicing, choreographing, making props and costumes, and taking classes. The only obvious motivations seemed to be those of enriching life and building community. Unlike their professional work at selected venues, no one gets paid much to perform at a Burlesque Festival, rather, the performers pay an entrance fee and are selected based on the producer’s reaction to their submission materials.

    So I set about asking why. What compels you to want to do this? In our society of fear, why do you want to expose yourself? Why in these forms? Why, in front of so many people, family, friends and strangers? And then, for the sake of making portraits, I put this out to them:  “If you could do anything, bring anything, go anywhere and make a portrait with me, which expresses your motivations, how would you choose to do it? Please take as much control as you like.”  I know that, to some of these subjects, it may have felt like doing homework, but I’ve found that with the majority, they really liked being asked to have a voice and to contribute. I tell them there’s no right or wrong way to conceptualize a photo session.  They can be glamorous or silly, serious or angry, political or religious, postmodern… they can take a session along whatever path they might wish.

    As the work of the Acting Out project began to unfold and evolve, I learned many things. Two really stand out. First, asking the question about motivations didn’t mean I would often get cogent or easy answers. What it did, instead, was supply a conversational context; an umbrella under which the image making could live and thrive. Secondly, by sharing control of physical details and ideas, I opened myself up to the repeated chance for surprise and the regular need to marvel in and explore decisions these individuals brought me. In no small way this opened up wonderful explorations into styles and ideas of propriety and taste. The work became, more than anything else, about freedom of expression.

As the session with the Duchess and MisRed wrapped up, MisRed realized she’d forgotten her passport which we need for release forms. After she came back minutes later with it, she spoke with my partner and me more intimately about the shoot.  She spoke of real life, of the difficulties, and of the triumphs. The effort. She explained why she’d wanted to go where she went in her portrait session and we were both deeply moved to realize what she had brought to us and to the portraiture for Acting Out.

    The whole encounter, from the minute these two wonderful and generous performers sat with us on Bourbon street until their portrait sessions were finished, defines the microcosmic essence of what I seek in this approach to portrait photography, and why I so love this art form. MisRed, more than any other individual we’ve met on our Burlesque Festival travels this year, looked into the images in my book, and understood the project it represents -- she got it. She perceived a chance to share the agency of this making and create images which may have arisen from the Burlesque but are something much different. In the encounter, she found the opportunity to give not just me, but herself and an audience, permission to look at part of the experience of her private world. I’m always conscious of the lies photographs seduce us into believing. We presume to know far more from an image than we really do. That’s why it’s called art. Only MisRed knows what she wanted and what she took from the portrait session. The viewer may take away a hundred possible fictions or perhaps none.  All I can assert with certainty is, that act of washing away the mask helped me create something ethereal and important, and for this I am forever grateful.

MisRed

MisRed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imprint by Stratton McCrady

Last night, as I sometimes  do, I woke around  5:30 AM and got out of bed, I returned after a trip to the bathroom. Trying hard to not wake the angel sleeping nearby, I slid back into my safe cocoon.  I then had an experience so universal, so comforting, and so ordinary as to almost escape notice. Leaving the chilly darkness for the return to the comfort of my pillows, my memory foam, cotton sheets, and quilts, I felt the responding soul sigh of that re-embrace. I sank back into the warmth still present there, residual from my body, my life force, which we all know, crave, and depend upon. The entire function of bedding is to hold warmth as a place of rest. The bed seems to remember, noting the impression of my bones, a residual smell of this man, and his radiant temperature, slowly dissipating, always (entropy will win out in the end; one day the bed and I will grow cold and never warm back up again.) I lay there pondering the ease of return to what, for lack of better words, felt like a return to myself. I’m sure it’s illusory, but in that moment something about that cocoon felt elemental, purely of me, of my heat, still present, touching all the familiar contours whence it was absorbed to begin with. That imprint felt somehow unique, like a fingerprint. I’m sure I take such wee hour musings too seriously, but then, someone has to.

I begin with that dubious ramble, because it rekindled a growing conversation I’ve been holding in my head about energy and imprint, the natures of self and what we might see and feel about ourselves and others. Those who know me may guess that, as usual, it has something to do with photographs. Not to be maudlin, but I enter an age now, where questions of what we leave behind, both large and small, enter my thoughts more often. I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of insignificance.  I choose that word carefully.  In the postmodern study called semiotics, significance is all. Signifiers are the visual content engines by which any detail in a work of art or design, imparts cultural meaning. Signifiers are slippery things because one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. But still, in photographs, long before I’d ever heard of semiotics, I knew, from a heart/gut level that images moved me. They have the power to grab, to punch, to arouse, to thrill and sober me. They can stop me and hold my attention, some for years. Our culture elevates imagery, especially of famous people, but history shows many enduring images of the world’s nobodies. Many important images have no people at all in them, though for me pictures of people speak the loudest. By my reckoning, the baseline remains, pictures have power.  I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to understand how and why.

Perhaps less transitory than my body heat in the covers, photographs are nothing but imprint. I say less transitory for only one reason. Unlike my lovely bed, the camera can capture and hold, permanently, the most fleeting of impressions. I’m not alone in believing that the surreal power of photographs lies in that power to capture that which, in almost every other human circumstance remains transitory. The camera is a device as precise and elegant as a gun, made to expose an emulsion or a sensor to miniscule instants of focused light. That light signifies, only because of what matter reflected it, and how the tiny instant was focused and captured. Postmodern art theory asserts that the idealized capture, rife with a concept, commands the whole issue in artistry, and the substance in the viewfinder becomes far less important. Typically, I usually beg to differ.

This whole inner contemplation has swirled over several years, for me, asking repeatedly questions about the value of any image. I don’t mean value in a monetary sense, though one can go there. I have two particular framed images, one of them actually a mounted triptych of three. The little boy in this composed set is my maternal grandfather. In the pictures he is about four years old, so his portrait must have been made around 1910. The set was obviously commissioned at a professional studio, probably in Detroit, and was beautifully printed in a deep sepia tones, mounted and framed in a clean, elegant pictorialist manner. This was the work of a person clearly seeking to achieve both a commercial and artistic product. He framed the child full length, interacting with a book and a chair, standing and sitting. The photographer must have used a tripod, because each of the three images has an exact common horizon line established by the floor meeting the wall behind the primary subject. My grandfather is sweetly stylish, with a rather long dutchboy haircut, quite girlish by today’s style standards. If my mother had never told me this was Grandaddy Buck, I might never have known. I knew him in his fifties and sixties, when he had almost no hair. He died rather young, in 1974 of throat cancer, after too many years of Pall Malls and bourbon. The photograph hung at my grandparent’s home until they passed, and then later in my mother’s home, and now with my parents gone, it hangs in my home.

The second image I mentioned is one I decided to buy, from an antique dealer near my home in Maine. It’s  a photograph of a baby, a much younger baby, even, than the one of my grandfather. This one is a tintype, a close descendant of the earliest commercial methods for making photographs which became wildly popular and affordable in the 1860s. That’s about the time I assume it was made, though it could be as late as 1900. The Daguerreotype and Tintype were beautifully detailed processes, both painfully slow. My photo is of a baby, perhaps only a year old, blonde and pensive. He/She is in front of a dark background and I expect the picture was almost certainly exposed using phosphorus flash powder. Such a fluid and honest expression would have otherwise passed, too fleeting for a minutes long exposure in bright daylight. The image is small, not more than 2.5 inches on the long edge in an embossed leather clad wooden case, typical for commercial sale of Daguerreotypes and, I suppose, their cheaper sturdier cousins the tintype.  I bought it because it made me ponder things I’m only now starting to deconstruct.  So why these two images then? What on earth could it possibly have to do with crawling back into a warm bed? Both of the pictures arrest me, because they depict a cliche so basic and universal. Except for the most jaded among us, babies fill us with joy, and longing. They remind us of important moments in our young adulthoods. They remind us of innocence, and rare, palpable bonds of effortless love and connection.

 Both these images stop me cold. The vibrant angelic faces shining out their souls depict people who are both dead. Dead, dead, dead. One child was an enigmatic figure in my life, hard of hearing and somewhat disconnected by that from most family society, the other an even more remote, absolute stranger. The tintype baby could be anyone. He’s too blonde to be Hitler I guess, but perhaps she could be Evelyn Nesbit. I’m guilty of that stupid deceit which casual enthusiasts of reincarnation commit; they always believe they were someone famous in a previous life. My anonymous baby was probably nobody, a homemaker, or a bus driver, asthmatic perhaps. Maybe he became really good at whistling. I only have one tiny bit of evidence this person ever existed at all, or ever became a person. The sum total of that life, from my perspective lies in the proof before me that in one white hot flash a tiny exposure produced this single lasting imprint of the image.  The triptych has more personal dimension, in as much as I know that the little boy grew into a man who begat my mother, loved baseball and steamed clams, and would have happily spent every morning of his life, if he could have, smoking Gauloises, and sipping cafe au lait on the Champs Elysee. He was a scholar, fascinated by Flaubert.

They are both gone, dust, these two souls. Maybe they still exist somewhere, but I will have to pass that test to know, or not know the answer to that burning question. When I and my generation of siblings and cousins have passed, the triptych will be just as anonymous as the tintype I suspect. Thus, I’m faced with the plain quandary. Do these images have any inherent value. Why? To whom? And, just like Alfred Stieglitz I suppose (again with the famous people!) I know those answers. Why? My mother’s fallback position: Because I say so. To whom? To me. They matter to me.   I want the pictures I make to matter; to matter to others. In my fantasy life they matter to thousands of people. They matter enough that I can pay the rent and have a nice car. At the end of the day all I can control is what matters to me. Those children reached out through the vapor, to remind me of vitality, mortality, the familial, and the vastness and fragility of life itself.   They remind me that crawling back into a warm bed filled with love may be more than I ever deserved.

Ten Records which Have "Stuck with me." by Stratton McCrady

1.)The Chad Mitchell Trio At the Bitter End

2.) Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding Play Monterey Pops

3.) Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

4.) Tom Waits, Rain Dogs

5.) The Pogues, If I Should Fall From Grace With God

6.) Elvis Costello, King of America

7.) Steve Earle, I Feel Alright

8.) Guy Clark, Old No. 1

9.) Kate Rusby, Hourglass

10.) Rickie Lee Jones, Pirates

A friend on Facebook sent me one of those, answer the question and select ten friends to harass with the same question, quizzes. These requests aren’t fair. Asking for a top ten list of music which has “stayed with me,” is a little like asking for my favorite bible verse. Ask me for my top fifty and I could get closer. Recently, after his passing, I read a piece by David Bowie regarding a similar theme, specifically on Vinyl. He started out saying he would forgo the obvious ones, like Sargent Peppers. I’ve done the same. It’s obvious how big The Beatles, the Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, CSNY were in my formation. I would add things my Dad listened to like Bach, Mozart, all those MHS recordings, and later he was into Scott Joplin and rediscovered Hank Williams. All that impacted me hugely. During college I was rather obsessed with Little Feat and the Grateful Dead. Over so many years there have been so many Alt. Country/Americana artists, EmmyLou Harris large among them; and new wave. The Talking heads, the Police, REM. Perhaps lists like these are conspicuous based on who one is forced by brevity, to leave out.

So: The ones I did choose.

My earliest memories of music are church hymns and my dad’s folk music. My sister pulled out the Chad Mitchell Trio from my dad’s grad school years and she and her friends and I listened to it constantly. I got a guitar for my 13th birthday and one of the first songs I could actually play and sing came from this record, The Very Unfortunate Man.

The Hendrix/Redding compilation from Monterey Pops arrived when my sister signed up for a Columbia Record Club. It began with ten records for one dollar. My sister never actually listened to this one but damn I did. Before I’d ever considered Motown or discovered Bob Dylan, I experienced Otis Redding at Monterey and listened to Hendrix cover Like a Rolling Stone. To this day, his version of that song is transformative for me.

It would be stupid for me to go on about Miles. I’m not an expert in Jazz. Kill me if you must, but I think Kind of Blue is the best jazz record ever made.

When Tom Waits made the soundtrack for Coppola’s One from the Heart, he and Crystal Gayle recorded a really beautiful set for that tragic failure of a movie. He then climbed from the wreckage of that and shook off 15 years of a career to make Swordfish Trombones, effectively redefining himself absolutely. Then came Rain Dogs. It took me a long time to give up my prejudices about his old music versus new. The new required giving in and letting go. Every time I listen to Rain Dogs, I marvel at the mastery of it, the originality and beauty of it. God bless the difficult.

If I should fall, marked the moment, in international terms, that the Pogues had made it, really made it. They had it produced by big hitter, Steve Lillywhite. It also marks the end I think, because for them success was lethal. They never got anything as right again, as they got this record. It is pure, traditional, modern and original and dangerous. That’s everything the Pogues were.

Like Miles, I can’t say much about Elvis Costello. In the middle of his endless auspicious career, he decided to make a record where every song sounded like an American hit. Many people criticized this record for that reason. It was like he was saying, “just to show you, I can do this. So there.” I like Elvis, but I love this record.

Steve Earle changed my life. I know it’s weird being a upper middle class intellectual white guy who became obsessed with an angry, drug addicted, intellectual redneck but there you have it. Earle expresses the longing, the dismay, the impatience and the restlessness of being a man. It’s very hard for me to choose this one record, but this entered my life at an intense time filled with longing and dismay. I used this record like a crutch and like a badge on my chest. In my shop at my theatre job, if I had a group come through I wanted to get out of my hair… and leave me be, I played I Feel Alright really loud. I figured it might not only hurry them along, but enrich them in spite of themselves.

During my second and third semesters of college I tried really hard to flunk out. I pretty much achieved that goal. Instead of studying, I hung out in an upper classman’s room imbibing and wondering why I was so depressed. Kid’s are so stupid. He played this perfect record by Guy Clark daily. I associated it so much with being depressed and lost that it took me until the CD era to find my way back to it. For me Guy Clark may be perhaps the most emotionally generous artist I’ve ever listened to. He stands as the artist I’ve been to hear play live the most (five times!) I know others came first, but to me Guy is the father of this entire Americana/Alternative Country movement so dear to my heart. This record is perfect, as if handed down, like the ten commandments, by God.

I included Hourglass by Kate Rusby, again, because she’s just so flawless and pure. She is completely self made, self produced (a family cottage industry, literally) and self contained within the UK. To my knowledge she does not ever tour the US. Since I first listened to this, Kate is always with me. When I think of what taste in music making is, I think of this artist.

Rickie Lee Jones came to me at an important moment in life, transitioning from college to real life. Like Joe Jackson, at that moment, she was folding a lot of Jazz into her mainstream pop music. This was the last record before she went into a well publicized alcohol rehab. She has always been about artistic purity in the face of pressure to succeed commercially. She never compromised. She only made Chuck E’s in love the one time.

 

SO: I did ten albums. I’m determined to do a repair list of ten songs to try and reach some of the vast ocean of what is missing in the album list.

 

 

  1. Taxman            G. Harrison/Beatles

  2. This Magic Moment        Jay and the Americans

  3. Shelter from the Storm    Dylan

  4. Tell Me Why            Neil Young/CSNY

  5. Diamond Dogs        Bowie

  6. Sweet Carolina        Ryan Adams

  7. Three More days      Ray Lamontagne

  8. Life is a Carnival        The Band

  9. Mendocino            The McGarrigle Sisters

  10. Losing my Religion        R.E.M.

 

 

Why Burlesque? by Stratton McCrady

Every question anyone might ask me about this vast, burgeoning set of photographs I’ve made returns to one abiding issue. Recently an old friend of mine asked it. He said, “So why Burlesque? It’s like stripping-lite or something, right?”

So why Burlesque?

The prurience hound, that adolescent straight boy who lurks at times, deep down inside most members of everyday society thinks he knows the answer. You know that kid. The one who walks up to the Venus Di Milo and grins sheepishly at you sidelong. He says, “Huh huh huh, look, boobies, she’s hot,” or “who doesn’t like naked chicks?”

Right.

I’m sick of that voice. That adolescent prurience hound will always stay thirteen. I’ve grown up and moved on. For most of my life, I tried not to question the appeal of such things, yet that stands in direct opposition to a deeper need to take my work seriously. Over the last three years, I’ve written and thought, prayed and pondered both the work and the topic itself. I’ve looked at it through so many lenses. I’ve tried on the anthropologist, the feminist,  the enthusiast, the academic. Mostly though, I’m a passionate informed observer. The art of photography, I believe, is the art of seeing, of observing. Painters may observe passionately, but in the end they work constructing a canvas painstakingly, via brushstrokes, smears or spatters. Photographs are exposed. Exposure represents an instantaneous decision, based almost entirely on observation.

An art made of watching, Burlesque explodes, demanding us to watch and engage. Very much like the binary of two hands clapping, Burlesque requires audience. Burlesque demands attention. That attention functions, not in static silence but as an active ingredient. The sympatico of the audience, is no less real, for having become a cliche. Every single performer of any form will describe the moment when performing art becomes alive, transforms, via the energy shared between performer and the audience. I believe performance remains one of those purely human endeavors. My incidental act of pointing the camera at performers, purely instinctive for me, started after many years of working with, and for actors in theatre. Almost instantaneously I felt (please forgive the pun)  something click, when I began photographing actors. I’ve written extensively about the scopic binary of exchange in the portrait relationship, but what I do in Acting Out is even more specific.

I seek out groups, individuals, or companies, who perform contemporary burlesque and invite them to engage in portrait image making. I’ve become fully aware that while it shares many specific details with burlesque performance, unless they are actively onstage doing a show when I’m shooting, the picture performance is something else. It’s not burlesque. It’s portraiture about the feelings, the urges and motivations to perform in these ways. It’s also art about how I experience these individuals. This leaves the other major question I get asked a lot. What’s in it for them? I’ve learned that each performer’s act of creation seems to long for a lasting record, proof if you will. These people want their expressions, changeable as they may appear, captured -- to flirt with iconography. They long to reflect and radiate image. They live moments which they wish to hold onto. As Jacques Lacan put it, they are scopically complicit. The portrait exchange between photographer and performer is to make, and to be made.

So what is Burlesque today, then? It’s dance sometimes, music always. Some practitioners call it stripping. It’s about sex. It’s comedy, certainly. It’s history; of sleaze, of glamour and kink, of objectification sometimes, of women liberating themselves from antebellum culture only to be re-enslaved. It’s vaudeville and minstrel show, reborn and abandoned. It’s the Bowery, Union Sq. and 42nd Street of the 1940s, horny shore leave sailors at hand. It’s Nashville’s lower Broadway long before the cleanup, and Boston’s combat zone. It’s Gypsie Rose Lee, Bette Midler, Dita Von Teese, Bettie Page, Tom Jones, Monroe and Madonna, all with a little Pee Wee Herman mixed in. It’s third wave feminism absolutely, awash in an, as yet, undefined fourth wave. More to the point, it’s the geek who never fit in at school, the hipster, the queer guy, bear and queen, show and drag, the lesbian, thespian,  the dyke, the slut, the athlete and the ballerina, and yes, the everyday mom, (who happens to be every one of those souls), embracing a sacred opportunity to loose the bonds and get his/her freaky on - on stage - in community. I believe what we’re actually seeing in Burlesque is the entertainment arm of a second wave sexual revolution.

Many will sneer at this, but I think that Burlesque reflects an important cultural moment unfolding before us. We stand, deeply lost in cultural dis-ease. Politically, this American landscape could not get more dysfunctional and fractured. The liberal ethics I hold dear are reviled by a large portion of my fellow citizens. Here, now, in 2016, racism flows as strongly as ever, homophobia seems only slightly less acceptable than before, and Ted Cruz could be our next president. Radical Islam wants me dead. In Spite of all that, gay marriage is the law of the land, and more than ever, freedom to express non-traditional sexual identities, and the freedom to choose, ignore, or redefine classic gender assignments has never been more public, more visible. In the United States, we might soon elect a woman president.

Recently a loved one of mine attended a show with me, while in residence photographing the Vermont Burlesque Festival. He guilelessly described a simple, deep and wonderful reality of what I’ve discovered in this art form. “Wow, these people are really comfortable with their sexuality,” he said. That comprehensively sums it up.

I’ve always held sexuality as sacred. All animals fuck, but, now and then, we humans make love. We elevate sexuality, in many casual, and sometimes outrageous, and glorious ways. The very first glimpse of sexuality in open expression of the revealed female form in America came with the French Ballet in the 1840s. It had caught on in European high culture and Americans wanted some. Nothing demonstrates the sort of elevation I describe better than complex, delicately choreographed dance. From Greek sculpture well before the birth of Jesus, all the ways down to the wildest porn on the internet today, our generations of culture have celebrated and indulged in examples of sexuality, elevated. The elevation witnessed in burlesque today, beautifully and sweetly reveals the elaborate freedom of expression I describe, and also gnawing hungers.

After so much television-cellphone-internet, people crave real performance on a stage. After so much web porn, people want raunch which feels happy, honest and innocent because maybe it truly is. People crave the chance to laugh about each other without contempt, to laugh at sex, to lust after bodies they can believe and relate to -- and to do all this in company of friends and lovers without shame. When we go, we find ourselves not hiding in a grim room, shared with other pervs, stuffing $1 bills into a g-string, but in welcoming venues filled with all sorts of humanity and light. The audience, remarkably, resembles the performers, embracing the rainbow. It may hug the edges of the mainstream, but that’s still the mainstream. Burlesque has done now what it could never do through those decades it spent evolving into the modern strip club. It welcomes and actually attracts everyone. People go on dates to the burlesque. I don’t have to keep this project a secret from family and friends. This all has happened because of one salient truth. In our lost world, the Burlesque is joyful.  

   


"6 photographers shot a portrait of the same guy. It's astonishing how different they are." by Stratton McCrady

This video piece on photography and portraiture went viral earlier this week. A loved one shared it to me on facebook, believing it would be, as they say, in my wheelhouse. Surprisingly I wasn’t wowed. I wasn't sure how to respond, so till now I hadn’t done more than simply like the post, hoping the loved one who posted would at least know her sharing was welcome. It truly is.

That first paragraph functions as a preamble. I stood in the shower last night , quizzing myself as to just why, honestly, I had not liked the basis for, or the finished work in the project. I won’t completely repeat the details, since you can just watch the video, but basically a third party had engaged a subject to pitch 6 different lies to six different photographers about his personal history. They each made portraits (one at a time, with no knowledge of each other) in the same studio space, using the same basic variety of backgrounds and props, and to my knowledge, the same available lighting. I presume each photographer (not the organizer who arranged it all) chose one image they liked from their session to print for presentation. Loosely speaking, they tried to reflect “who he is” in the portraits.

As I examined my responses, I realized my first instinct, questionable at best and worth watching out for in future, was, “How would I have done that differently?” We all have our font of arrogance, and I doubt I’m vastly different from a lot of people, falling back to that question. Still, from that question my discomfort began to emerge. I would have told the subject to give every photographer the same version of the same history, false or not. That way, how different each portrait might be would not suffer any musing over the idea that premeditated lies could be important engines for visual meaning. I’ll probably have to continue to argue with myself over whether or not there may be value in that premise.

I would have given each photographer run of the whole building, not just the one room, because so damn much of what real portrait artists do is use their senses to search for, or produce that alchemy of space, light, angle of view, perspective, and input of subject expressed and bounced back during exposure. I felt making them all work in one room with the same light served to superimpose a false uniformity to the results. Perhaps that was the point. I just don’t find it to be an interesting point. If they were each given reign to wander a bit, just talk as real people to each other, then you might have truly seen how differently real photographic artists express a subject during one given afternoon.

As this tumbled around in the rickety Kenmore dryer of my mind, like a tennis shoe with plastic tips on the laces, I began to understand more clearly some elements that I’ve been studying and writing about over the last three years.

This from my recent thesis -

“In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes uses the term, “punctum” to describe how details captured in a single beat can function to grab and command our attention:

“ …   this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation …  I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole -and also a cast of the dice. A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me ...”

 

Susan Sontag dissects that primary aspect of the photograph as an image made from a slice of time. She argues that this makes photography quintessentially surreal, reminding us that the present always immediately becomes past, equating life indelibly with loss, aging, and death. Barthes’ “Punctum” often resides precisely within that slice-of- time aura, of surprise and quirky nuance in a photograph.

 

Diane Arbus’s image of stripper Sata Lyte demonstrates these qualities. In that strange contrast between her stripper’s costume, her busty near nudity, and her quizzical face (complete with cat eye glasses) lives punctum. The vintage antiquity of her glasses and the sad, dated details of the dressing room, with it’s ancient sink and harsh bathroom light, all invoke that surreal sense of a fraction of antiquated time lifted from the past for ongoing scrutiny.

 

Contemporary master of the portrait and the staged fashion photograph (Figure 2.), Richard Avedon, described these aspects of photography differently.  He says:

“(The)camera lies all the time. It’s all it does is lie, because when you choose this moment instead of this moment … the moment you’ve made a choice, you’re lying about something larger. ‘Lying’ is an ugly word …  any artist picks and chooses what they want to paint or write about or say. Photographers are the same.”

 

  Figure 2. Richard Avedon.         In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort. 1995.

(A photograph) calls into question our notions of truth; it slices the image from its context while studying someone’s attempt to show how they might wish to appear (Fig. 3). How the artist catches these disjunctions often presents a surprise that is different from the best laid plans of either party. “

 

           Figure 3. Stratton  McCrady.                                           Tera, 2014 ”

-- and so circling back to the now --

 

Finally, I understood why the affectation of fabricating  false historys of the subject for each photographer bothered me. This is so elemental to what I have realized matters to me in my work. I’m so grateful to my loved ones for hammering it home like this;

In my work I seek the surprise. When working with a subject, who they are, and who they want to be, how they look and feel, and how they wish to look and feel are all literally the same thing (no matter how badly either party in the exchange might wish it otherwise.) The camera doesn’t care, and is too stupid to know the difference. When I was young, the 60s catch phrase for computers was, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

The light shines, the people move, the camera captures, I edit … during every single step I apply all my photo-y skill.  I try to encourage as much attention and input and shared ownership as possible from my subject through every step of the process, and especially when the pictures have been chosen and are ready to see. What I am learning is, the pictures I make which are any good are the ones that feel uncontrolled, where, in that tiny instant, something bare and essential shows up in the frame. Maybe something neither of us really had any control over. The control comes in acceptance and ownership, in agreement that we, that subject and I are in that picture.

Not one of the finished portraits in the video grabbed me in such ways. Not one.

 

 

The Scopic URge; contemplations after Montreal. by Stratton McCrady

Not long ago, as I polished my master’s thesis, my reader challenged the word “scopic.” As far as I know, the term is a creation of the psychoanalytic world of theorists like Jacques Lacan. Scopic does not turn up easily in dictionary search engines, though Scopophilia certainly does. As I pointed out to my professors any time there’s an “ophilia” attached (and she’s not floating at the bottom of the pond) then we’ve turned the activity into a disease.

The word comes from the Greek, scopia meaning observation, and is where we get the word scope, apropos when considering the camera. For this discussion, it refers to an urge to see and be seen. Like the sound of one hand clapping, a craving to be observed needs an observer. Lacan’s graphic called the “scopic field” has garnered so much analysis and discussion from students and scholars, because he gave the world of feminism a powerful tool to identify and name the “male gaze.”

In case anyone thinks I’m dismissing my sisters in the fight for equality -- allow me now, please, to disabuse you. The Second Wavers and all who’ve spoken up since, identify a very real often crippling phenomenon where men use their hunger for sexual procurement, feasting through their gaze, and making women into meals. This is the core of sexual objectification. The presumption is: how you (female) look is my objective, and I’ll consume that, welcome or not, invited or not, and that for me (male), the rest of who you are does not exist, much less matter.

Of course, as in the case of every quest for absolutes, the absolutism surrounding pernicious objectification tends to be myopic. The baby goes in the bathwater whether or not she fits in the drain. In Feminism’s Third Wave we have seen a parade of proud women -- fiercely determined to put sexual self expression, sex work and sexuality in general, back on the table; they’ve sought to decriminalize public sexual expression in feminist social terms. The resurgence and popularity of burlesque is a prime example.

Being male, I have to be careful, tread lightly, and question as objectively as possible, my assertions. In truth my thoughts on this are more about a lifetime of observation. In my time, I’ve lived through both the Playboy/Penthouse years and through the Women’s Movement. In blunt terms -- admiring women, respecting and looking up to them, working with them, and for them certainly has not made me wish to create images of them any less. Hearing it said may seem indiscreet but no less true. So I move on.

As I’ve worked becoming a serious image maker, this urge toward portraiture grew, largely unquestioned. Artists have pictured the human person through time immemorial. Young photographers often shy away from portraits out of self consciousness, but as we age a bit, we grow bolder.  I explained to someone during a recent excursion to photograph the Montreal Burlesque Festival, that perhaps my most important discovery over the years arose from the urge to photograph people.

Amanda Palmer (luminary, hero, some might say, Saint…) beat me to the punch writing extensively about this in her book, “The Art of Asking.” I discovered some time ago that everything lies in the asking. By deciding to take the risk, by simply asking another person to take part, sets in motion a scopic interaction. In my theory the scopic urge may have always existed in people. I believe wholly that the invention of the camera set that urge free, because the camera enables both parties to fully indulge it.

But history has shown us that in the forging of such a relationship as the scopic exchange, power is everything; who provides it, who holds it, who shares it, who assumes or wrests it away? The ebb and flow of that power -- following it and seeing it clearly, remains my daily challenge. I pursue what I shoot for it’s pure beauty, its surprises, and what it may teach about our preconceptions and our values. I realize more and more deeply that I gravitate to these expressions of power, and seek to capture them. As I’ve watched and photographed Burlesque, (mostly women in this world of small pay performance),  I’m convinced that, while the expression of sexuality matters, owning the power in that and defining the terms and details of that engagement is at least as important to the performers.

Within this scopic field, even as some shrug off misgivings, again and again, people have loved to be photographed. I do not doubt that several generations of powerful examples in photo history help to inspire the participants. For me, the gift is nearly beyond measure. I get to make. I get to collect the light bounced from the corporeal spirit of someone who wants to crystalize something new. They reflect, I collect, and in that microsecond, the possibility of a third new entity exists. It would be easy to chalk this up to prurience and vanity (as the judgemental prudes love to do) but I prefer not to so cheapen either party’s motives.

I think this urge to see and be seen, this urge to reflect and collect light, this act of crystallization, when committed with care and reverence, may possibly become profound. The scopic urge shows no sign of abating. Perhaps these urges are rooted far deeper than we once thought, and maybe what we share holds deeper possibilities and meanings. History proves that real dangers exist, as evidenced by hideous phenomena like revenge porn and other similar tragedies. The scopic need not always engage sexuality or gender and often does not. I’m asserting that real glories and possibilities for magic and power and joyful creation also exist in this collaboration. Isn’t that always the way with meaningful exchange between people?

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Musings on the NOLA Burlesque Festival by Stratton McCrady

I know I walk on shaky ground when I start to project my version of reasons and motivations for things women do. This project called Acting Out has ultimately worked to traverse that minefield, chasing the urges which drive people to crave putting themselves out there for scrutiny. Perhaps in the end all I ever sought was to better understand. All the obvious answers appear to apply; these performers crave the color, the lights, the adoration and adulation, the attention, the desire, the novelty, the vintage reliving of a past era, the electricity of a rocking public address system, the rhythm and physicality, very much the costumes, the glitter, sequins and false eyelashes, the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.

Through more careful and intimate conversations, I’ve come to believe it’s also about exhibitionism and to some very real degree, about a visceral urge to expose and express one’s sexuality. More than that, it all connects to what an actor friend of mine described as a fundamentally Eastern aspect of spirituality. She said in her discipline, physical energy, sexual energy and creativity are deeply intertwined, in ways Western spiritual systems fail to recognize. In some pure ways, the sexuality in burlesque seems irrevocably bound to creative performativity. To use an overworked feminist term, this act of performing certainly appears to  empower.

Though I have no experience with the mainstream world of strip clubs, I will suggest that while burlesque dancers do get paid small fees once they progress past a certain threshold, the ethos of bills stuffed into a g-string, hundred dollar lap dances, and requisite demands which come with the strip club impose an entirely different meaning and energy than found in the world of Burlesque. Like strippers, burlesque dancers have fans, and sometime stalkers, but they do not suffer the same presumptions strippers do, in the pursuit of money.

Recently as I roamed and shot photographs in and around the New Orleans Burlesque Festival I found myself pondering what seems a seminal motivation. I’m increasingly convinced that a huge driver is the act of transformation. One of the dancers we spoke to during the weekend shared that she and most of her colleagues were never the beautiful or popular kids growing up who felt they fit in. As a member of our mainstream media culture, I’ve long been aware of the power of makeup and dress. Never before have I felt it so pervasively.

At one point I found myself at an upstairs bar in the back of a performance venue and my camera attracted the attention of a young woman who was completely decked out, much like a burlesque performer (not surprising given the festival.) I asked if she was a performer, and she said yes, though not performing at this particular event. The extent of the makeup included layers of sparkle and extra eyelashes, the hair with professional extensions and color, and the outfit retro, noir, bombshell sexy, heels painfully high, skirt slit all the way up to there. She had not dressed that way to go on stage. I don’t presume to know how it all may have made her feel. The outfit acted clearly, like a uniform serves, as an signifier. It was then that this notion of transformation began to simmer for me. We live in a cattle call world of dehumanizing and often impersonal drudgery. I know my quests in camera have always been about feeling more alive - about illuminating the glory of what I think everyone should see. I had the privilege to shoot both some technical run-throughs, performers working in rehearsal clothes, and then to shoot the performances of the same acts. The transformation is vast in scope and sometimes astonishing. And so I wonder.

People too often quote the phrase questionably attributed to Oscar Wilde, “Everything in this world is about sex except sex… sex is about power.”  I wonder if that whole metamorphosis from everyday woman to bombshell is all about the transformation - plugging into the energy, the sex and desire and all the inherent power -  to become larger than life - which transformation might provide.


Was a Man by Stratton McCrady

I spend time, at this age, pondering histories, memory and fondness. Ideally, I’m not a huge believer in nostalgia, but as I age I’m more convinced that reverence has become an under-appreciated virtue. The current generation reveres little. Almost no market exists these days for antique furniture unless a given piece is museum quality. I will say, this may differ in Europe and the dystopia I witness may be more uniquely American. Our culture grows more disposable and virtual by the day.

In my work making photographs recently, I’ve been questioning issues of pure graphic design, human touch and need, and how my feelings and emotional responses connect to the graphic, especially considered through a veil of years. How does design work? What do use values actually mean? How is that particularly different from the vanguard of contemporary conceptual art? Where can those aspects of human expression meet?

Among all my musings, I often revisit place, lands, and dwellings from my past. No object connects more purely to what I feel about use values than a building, made to shelter and hold us, to provide home.

In my final year of college in Sewanee, Tennessee, I chose to live in a quite odd dormitory, which had perhaps only sixteen rooms. It had been built as a temporary structure, from cheap materials, to house overflow of men returning on the GI bill from the second world war. It took the university longer to get around to tearing it down than planned. Architecturally speaking, it had no virtues. No aesthetic effort had been made for the structure. By appearances, even surplus paint got applied. The carpet was mouse poop brown. The walls were paper thin, and privacy of sound, nonexistent. The dorm was called Selden Hall.

I chose it because its reputation spoke of bohemianism. Only seniors lived there, and the model held that the Dean of Students (responsible for housing assignments) allowed older men with good grades and questionable regard for rules to finish out their matriculation, with a minimum of harassment. I wanted a dorm where I could get high and have a girlfriend (God willing) sleepover. Selden was perfect.

The beating heart of Selden Hall was it’s bathroom. A long mirror covered a counter with several sinks on one wall. Directly across stood a communal shower, where some intrepid friends of mine held beach parties. On a perpendicular wall stood three toilet stalls, and a single urinal to the left of the stalls, next to the lone window in the bathroom. You could enter the room from either end. The bathroom (though not the only place in Selden) was covered richly in erudite and profane graffiti, almost entirely written word. Our reverence for this was nearly biblical. It held thirty years of history and humor and identity. It held the ethos of Selden.

The year after I graduated a plan was finally enacted to finish the job and obliterate Selden Hall. That happened in the summer of 1982. In mighty Google no word search has produced for me, a picture of the building. Perhaps somewhere in Sewanee’s archives exists an image or a drafting of the dormitory. Maybe one day I’ll find out. Next to the urinal beside the one window in the bathroom, a friend of mine (according to legend, unsubstantiated) wrote a poem on the wall. We all believed it was the finest piece of art in the building. In my first year post college, I was living ninety minutes away, in Nashville, and I returned regularly to see my grandmother and many friends. I had learned of the slated demolition planned for June. In May, I drove to the mountain and brought a small crow bar. I strode into the Selden bathroom and took possession of the finest piece of art in the building. Having carefully pried and broken away the slab of masonite, holding the poem, I later took it to a radial arm saw and squared it up. To this day it remains a most prized possession. I’ve had to re-ink the lettering twice, since common ball point ink interacts poorly with masonite and surplus wall paint, causing it to repeatedly fade. Antique value gone, the words remain readable. That’s all that matters to me.