By VITTORIA BENZINE, July 2021
Is female empowerment possible through the male gaze? In this Instagram era where every hobby has been monetized into a side hustle for necessity’s sake, vanity photographers have arisen in droves to capture boudoir-esque, promotional photography for female musicians and models, sex workers, and other entrepreneurs. The female path to power has shape shifter over time, from one of matrimony and dowries to measurements and social media followers.
Enter MONEYGAME, the latest coffee table compilation from LA-based fine art photographer Elizabeth Waterman. This 132-page hardbound volume features 76 previously unseen photos captured primarily on 35mm and 120mm film. Working only in this one-shot analog medium emphasizes the skillful intimacy of Waterman’s hard-won images, collected over the course of four years (2016-2020) in national nightlife capitols like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, and New York City.
I really don’t know if female empowerment is possible through the male gaze. I know that intersectionality plays a big part—the photographer’s and subjects’ class, race, and life experience carries equal weight in the final conclusion. I can tell you one thing, though: only another woman can understand exactly what it feels like to only have your worth understood in terms of the men around you. I am pretty sure that only a woman can understand the utter bliss of expressing oneself regardless of the many contemplations that male presence requires. While strip clubs are, by nature, built for the male gaze, they’re also a place where women completely rule the stage and keep the pace.
Whether from the male or female perspective, depicting sex workers as art is a tricky job for even the most apt photographer. There’s an immediate danger of capitalizing on the subject matter, because sex workers are somewhat made (no, optimized) for consumption. Waterman diligently bucks the use of her subjects for personal gain by taking time to understand and infiltrate their reality with authenticity.
“It took months to get access to my first clubs, and a while to find my footing. No one quite understood what I was doing there. But I came in week after week,” Waterman explains in the project’s press release. “I helped to collect the dollar bills littering the stage. The dancers began to warm to me. I showed them my work, and they liked how I saw them. Soon they were volunteering to pose on the pole.” Genuine involvement infers a reciprocity that Waterman actively recognizes. “I know I’ve been changed by the experience,” she continues. “I know I’ve taken on some of their audacity.”
Even better, unlike other famous collections of photography celebrating women like Gary Winogrand’s contreversial Women Are Beautiful, Waterman has actually secured permission from each and every subject featured in MONEYGAME.
The subject matter aligns with Waterman’s existing oeuvre. “A through line in her distinctive body of work is the depiction of the ongoing metamorphosis of artists and performers of many genres,” her bio explains. Oftentimes this brings her into visual conversation with sex workers, but also with artists and other celebrants of female sexuality. “Waterman’s style has been called both transcendent and transformative,” the biography reads. “It is also elegantly composed, and infused with directness and authenticity.”
Each image throughout MONEYGAME elaborates on these aesthetic sensibilities with a pronounced dynamism. That energy comes from the directness and authenticity that’s helped Waterman build her name, and also from the movement she’s captured amongst these performers, whose physical feats rival those of most professional athletes. Her subjects don’t writhe, but slink with intention, hitting every angle just right in living testament to this fact: they know their spandex bodysuits and lacy lingerie inside and out. On the body and off.
“With the unique perspective and kindred spirit of a young female artist building her own body of work, Waterman celebrates her subjects’ humanity and commitment to mastering their art in service of larger life goals,” the press release concludes. It’s true that many performers enter the incredibly lucrative world of stripping to jumpstart grand plans like paying off student loans or buying a home or launching a business. But the greatest strength of MONEYGAME is that it widely ignores this.
Women (no matter how they arrive at identifying as such) don’t need a reason or an explanation to profit from the stereotyping and inequality that keeps them down in the first place. Women are still judged not only by the men surrounding them, but more importantly (and basely) by the mainstream appeal of their bodies, which attract most men into their orbits. I think it’s time women are liberated from the requirement to justify sex work, or any work of any variety so long as it doesn’t harm others.
Waterman immortalizes the performers throughout MONEYGAME in varying stages of unabashed bliss. One woman arches her back in a powerful child’s pose, face entirely obscured by a thick plume of vape smoke. Another contorts into a backbend with release and abandon, surrounded by dollar bills and crowd congregating around a handle of Makers Mark. Two girls trade a blunt and flash ass cheeks for a selfie, while another bikini-clad woman of color giggles with ebullient laughter in front of a fresco featuring carbon-copy Eurocentric bathing beauties.
Maybe these girls come for the money, but they definitely stay for the show. The production, the thrill of it all. An environment where they’re showered with dough simply for being themselves… along with a whole bunch of other emotional labor. But no one understands that better than women.
You can cop a coveted Collector’s Edition of MONEYGAME from Lisbon-based publisher XYZ books while they last—priced at $195, this very limited run of 50 copies each comes signed and numbered by the artist with an additional, signed 8” x 10” archival print. Standard Edition copies are also available at $55 USD/45 Euros.
Stripping and sex work are no longer lewd industries of a sequestered underworld. MONEYGAME shows one way women command their overt sexuality “with ethereal, dazzling grace.” As Waterman says, “This project would never have gotten off the ground without the trust and generosity of the remarkable women in these images. Thank you.” WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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