Men with Cameras

“The acclaimed photographer Michael Abramson, who passed away from kidney cancer in 2011 left me his estate. He was my longtime romantic partner but I knew little about the art world in general or photography in particular. Only that I had loved Michael and I treasured what he left, which included hundreds of vintage prints. One day as I was packing up Michael’s belongings I came across an archival box full of negative film strips simply labeled “1979.”

Holding up the first strip to the light, I realized this was Michael’s notorious never before seen work from a so-called gentleman’s club that used to exist on Chicago’s north side. Like many strip clubs of its era, the theater hosted monthly events called Camera Night during which, for an extra fee, amateur photographers were invited to arrive before the regular show began to take as many candid shots of the strippers as they liked. Like the other men present, Michael initially went to take photos of the strippers, but as he surveyed the larger scene, it occurred to him to turn his camera on the other photographers – the sea of men continually clicking their shutters.

Michael’s striking and often beautiful photographs of this complex social scene may at first glance generate discomfort, or even be dismissed as disturbing and ugly. While the images are not nearly as graphic as say those of Robert Mapplethorpe – which portrayed men on men – these photographs of men looking at women can make a feminist like myself cringe. Even now nearly 40 year after these photographs were taken, they retain the power to further the conversation of what it means for women to engage in sex work ─ and more critically perhaps, what it says about the men who would want to watch, engage in, and photograph them.”

This is part of the story shared to me by Michael Abramson’s surviving partner, Dr. Midge Wilson, who currently serves as the Director of the Abramson Arts Foundation.

When I shared her story and the images with a London professor friend of mine he wondered what had happened to all the pictures that the men had taken. I wondered too- did they develop them secretly? hiding them from girlfriends or wives? Others viewing the images pointed out to me the cost of purchasing porn in this pre-internet time. These gentlemen were creating their own personal porn supply!

Multiple stories can be unpacked about these wild sometimes humorous and over the top pictures – coming out soon in book form. Some call the scene truly sordid, but I wonder who is really holding the power in this gendered scenario. Within my gaze of the work I appreciate the wide smiles, the showbiz pizazz of the women, the relaxed atmosphere. A sign of the 70s – or men and women sharing an erotic experience? It looks like some are having fun. . Or for the women is it just put-on? A performance? And the men . . fun? bored? exploitive?

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What do you see?