Photographer Takes an In-Depth Look at Outsiders
By John Kelly
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
At 13th and New York NW, not far from Franklin Square, there used to be a massage parlor. The owner didn't expend much energy when it came to naming it the Magic Touch Massage Parlor. A young woman named Carla worked there, doing what women who work at massage parlors do.
"I really do like working here," Carla once said. "I enjoy it more than some of the customers."
A block away was Loretta's Weaving Shop, overseen by the eponymous Loretta, an older woman in cat-eye glasses and a blond beehive. She specialized in repairing moth holes and cigarette burns, carefully reweaving damaged fabric. She once repaired a shawl for Mamie Eisenhower.
The Magic Touch and Loretta's are gone. Today, moth-eaten shawls are thrown away. People find anonymous sexual encounters online. I'm guessing Carla never met Loretta, but they shared space inside the camera of Paul Feinberg, who took their photographs back in the 1970s. The pictures are hanging side by side at American University's Katzen Arts Center.
Paul calls the show "Another Washington," and it includes about 70 images he took in the 1970s and '80s for publications such as Washingtonian and The Washington Post Magazine. This was a Washington that many people never saw: burlesque queens and tattoo artists, short-order cooks and panhandlers.
Paul was drawn to outsiders. He was also captivated by storefronts, by their homespun architecture and crudely painted signage. There's a photo of Hair by Connie, on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria. In another image, a brown eye gazes out from a yellow crystal ball, the logo of Mrs. Demetrs, a spiritual reader and adviser who told $2 fortunes at 13th and U streets NW.
Then there's a shot of Bestt Cleaners on Georgia Avenue NW. (Why the second T? Did the proprietor think it signaled that his establishment was extra best?)
As Paul showed me around the exhibit recently, he said he considers all of his photographs to be portraits, whether they are of people or buildings. All tell a story. More often than not, the story is one of extinction.
The burlesque queens -- solid women, a bit tight around the face -- are especially poignant. Paul captured them at a time when their art form had already become an anachronism, replaced by the more explicit bump-and-grind of strip clubs.
And yet the strip clubs were doomed. The Gold Rush. Benny's Rebel Room. The wonderfully punctuated This Is It?!
Walk down 14th Street today, and there's not even a plaque commemorating Washington's red-light district.
"I would hang around for days," Paul said of his modus operandi. "I wouldn't photograph them. I would tell them, 'I'm doing a story,' which was true. . . . A lot of them, it didn't work."
But with some, it did. And once he established a rapport, Paul would take out his camera and tape recorder.
"I love these people, in the sense that to them it was show business," Paul said. "They were proud of what they were doing."
As proud as Musa Hamad, owner of Kay's Kwality Grille No. 2 at 12th and Eye streets NW, a block from the old bus station. When Paul took his picture, Musa had just bought the greasy spoon and had plans to serve food from his native Syria.
"You have these dreams," Paul said of the working people he photographed. "Some of them come true, and some of them don't."
He likes to think they all came true, even if Kay's Kwality Grille went the way of Loretta's Weaving Shop.
And Paul's story? Now in his 60s and living in Chevy Chase, he grew up poor in Washington, the son of a small-time grocer who moved the family around a lot.
Paul's mother thought he should do something practical, so he dutifully got an engineering degree at the University of Maryland. He worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center for 35 years, working on satellites that looked at Earth. Somehow, he found time to train his Nikon on things closer to home.
"This change thing is really what I want people to think about: how fast things change," Paul said of his photos of Carla, Loretta and the rest. "Think about them now, while they're here. . . . What you're looking at now in your world will look as old in 25 years as this world."