Monday, 5 March 2012

Henry Horenstein - Show

The Slipper Room, New York, NY, 2008 © Henry Horenstein

 My knowledge of burlesque is pretty limited. Dita von Teese is about as far as it goes. Oh, and I once saw the movie, 'The Birdcage'. Apparently the word comes originally from the italian term for a type of mocking, burlesco, 'comically exaggerated, especially in imitation of a literary or dramatic work'. I suppose it was the French who adopted it and developed the idea into a variety show. That might explain why it now includes folks taking their clothes off.

Henry Horenstein film screening © Foam

 Henry Horenstein's film and book about this shrinking world in New York are not only revealing documents, but elegant and respectful tributes to the more spit and sawdust end of showbusiness. Like his series from decades earlier, Honky Tonk, which captured the customers, performers and workers of Nashville's dying country music bars, Horenstein manages to celebrate the rawness of this after-hours subculture without exposing any of the darker life stories. Nan Goldin, one of Horenstein's protégées, took on that more dangerous task.

Henry Horenstein film screening © Foam

 Horenstein originally studied to be a historian and you get that sense of a straightforward documentary style in his earlier work, which reflects the influence of Robert Frank and Weegee. The 'Show' series, however, draws on something more sculptural. There is less emphasis of the surroundings and more on the formal qualities of the subject, which is nearly always the performer. You do not often get an idea, for example, of the clientele who come to watch burlesque shows. The environment has been neutralised to focus more attention on the individual or the action in the frame.
It is easy to see traces of Brassai's shots of Paris night life in the 'Show' images. But I would also say, to a lesser extent, Robert Mapplethorpe. Not just because transgenders and gays feature between the stripping pin-ups. Horenstein displays none of the muscular sexuality or deviancy Mapplethorpe was known for. But he does start to share some of his preoccupation with reduced form and composition.
However, whereas Mapplethorpe brought his subjects back to his own studio, Horenstein keeps his in the nightclub, their natural habitat. Perhaps, with his historian past, he feels a responsibility to photograph these people in their world.  E. P Thompson's, one of Horenstein's early mentors, had told him it is 'a historian's righteous duty' to record the undocumented. I believe he is photographing the world of burlesque as much for them as for himself.

Henry Horenstein: Show can be seen at Gallery Vassie, Amsterdam from 3 March 2012.

Jonathan Crawford

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