BORDELLO REVISITS the legendary brothel world of Paris during the inter-war years. It’s the twilight world of Brassai’s famous 1933 photographic study Paris de nuit (Paris by Night). An interesting essay by Paul Ryan puts the history of brothels, and the special relationship enjoyed by the French authorities with their owners, in context – a relationship all but destroyed in the aftermath of World War II when France was forced to confront the nature of collaboration with the Nazi invaders. A 142 year reign was brought abruptly to a halt in 1946 by draconian laws curbing procuring and whoring. However, Speer’s has not attempted to recreate the realities of the original houses of prostitution, despite shooting within the historic Parisian brothels that still exist and retain some semblance of their period décor.
This is actually a curious facet of the book. By using (quite beautiful) professional models, the overall impression fails to rise above the semblance of an extended fashion shoot – despite the adept conjuring of sensuous and erotic undertones and atmospheres of subdued and confined sexuality. And it is not difficult to bring to mind the fashion work of Sarah Moon when examining these ethereal glimpses into this imaginary world of sex workers. We know from Brassai, and from E.J. Bellocq’s work in Storyville (the red light district of New Orleans) or even graphic studies by Toulouse-Lautrec, that the unfortunate women eking out a living in these houses were far from well nourished, healthy and overtly glamorous. On the other hand, we also know that some of the houses were luxurious fantasy worlds, elaborately decorated, attracting the best quality of customer and where the owners could earn serious amounts of money – and the most talented girls could retire with money in the bank. Why Speers did not hire real prostitutes to create the images is a mystery given the extra dimension it would have added to the project. But Vee is an artist with the camera (as ably illustrated in other series, Parisians and The Birthday Party) and Bordello most certainly rises above the cheap peek-a-boo eroticism of the top shelf magazine. And in her attempt to make depictions ‘between genuine emotion and something more staged…a shift between the real and the surreal’ she goes a long way towards succeeding.
Australian born, Vee Speers has worked in Paris since 1990. She has exhibited widely and is represented in numerous collections and publications including The Sunday Times, Harpers & Queen, Arena, Esquire, and Black & White Magazine. This series was completed in 2000 and first appeared in book form in 2004 (Periplus) and the artist creates and exhibits the images as Fresson carbon prints (‘a unique 19th century, charcoal based process, hand-worked technique’) which imbues the images with ‘a sumptuous, painted quality and a lyrical, voluptuous sensuality’. Fashionista Lagerfeld sets the tone and provides the expected flourish whilst observing that ‘not for nothing is prostitution the oldest business on earth’! Speers addresses all our preconceptions, fantasies and dreams of a mythical world where it is always night, the girls are always beautiful and willing, devoid of artifice and full of grace. One might almost be convinced by Vee Speers’ lens that it was ever thus.