An iconic photo book captures the world of 1970s carnival strippers

USA. Tunbridge, Vt. 1974. Before the show. (Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)
USA. Tunbridge, Vt. 1974. Before the show. (Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos)

From 1972 to 1975, photographer Susan Meiselas spent her summers photographing the world of women who performed in small-town carnivals as striptease artists. The resulting work would go on to form one of the world’s most enduring photo books: “Carnival Strippers.”

Since the book’s publication, “Carnival Strippers” and Meiselas herself have achieved legendary status. For a while, the work went out of print. A quick Google search shows original copies going for hundreds of dollars.

But the German publishing house Steidl has worked closely with Meiselas to resurrect the book, and it is again available to the public at a far more affordable price. Steidl’s contemporary version of this classic comes with expanded texts and unpublished color photos, providing fascinating insight into this iconic work.

Meiselas herself was a bit of an anomaly in the world of photojournalism, a woman working in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. “Carnival Strippers” helped her break into this more or less hermetic culture.

Five years after the original book came out, Meiselas would create yet another now-famous book when she covered the conflict in Nicaragua. “Nicaragua” would cement her reputation as an icon in the photojournalism world.

The photographs in “Carnival Strippers,” and honestly all of Meiselas’s work, are unflinching, intimate and courageous. Like the best of journalism, they pull back the curtain on a group of people living in the shadows.

Particularly important is that Meiselas covers her subjects from a woman’s perspective, bringing a fresh and perhaps more intimate look to her photography.

With the Supreme Court decision overruling Roe v. Wade, the reissue of “Carnival Strippers” takes on added relevance. The original book was made in the early years of the women’s movement, when women were struggling for equal treatment. As the publisher’s description of the book says:

“Meiselas’ frank description of these women brought a hidden world to public attention, and explored the complex role the Carnival played in their lives: mobility, money and liberation, but also undeniable objectification and exploitation. Produced during the early years of the women’s movement, Carnival Strippers reflects the struggle for identity and self-esteem that characterized a complex era of change.”

The court ruling has seemingly turned back the clock, bringing all kinds of questions back into play in the United States, not least of which is the basic question of equal rights. Who has them? Who doesn’t?

“Carnival Strippers” depicts women trying to make their way in what was then, and still is, a nation hostile to their dreams, self-esteem, and ability to forge their own path and make their own decisions. At least until last week, we could look at Meiselas’s photographs through a lens that said, “Well, that was then. I’m so glad that things are better, if only a little.”

There is now an added weight to this work, rooted in the present. It’s a heavy reminder of the sad, cyclical nature of our collective history of marginalizing and shoving people to the side. And the photos, and the women, are there in stark relief, unavoidable, real human beings asking us not to forget, not to go backward.

You can see more of Meiselas’s work on her website, here. And you can buy the book here.

UPDATE; The book is sold out on the publisher’s website, but it looks like some are still available here.