Guest Speaker | The Photographers' Gallery

In January 2020, Kelly Bryan was selected by The Photographers' Gallery to be involved with their Viewpoint series. This involved giving a public talk about a body of work from the Feat For The Eyes exhibition (Susan Bright & Denise Wolff). Bryan spoke about John Goldblatt's series The Undressing Room.

Speech

This series The Undressing Room by John Goldblatt was featured in Creative Camera Magazine in 1968, but unfortunately didn’t gain much more exposure after this. In the magazine feature, Goldblatt explained his simple intentions when creating the work; one, he thought it would be a sure-fire method to make some money, and two he believed that taking these photographs would be fun. I think the way in which he describes the creative process of the series is very modest. The series opposes the conventional portrayal of Soho and its sex industry, moving beyond the ostentatious representations that have been so commonly produced. John delved much deeper than surface level when photographing the working women of a strip club as he found the beautiful mundanity in what is stereotypically considered an extravagant and animated industry. I was truly captivated by the photographs as a result. John presents an insider view into the lives of the females that went beyond their occupation, despite the fact the photographs were primarily shot in the enclosed space of the girls’ dressing room. Rather than creating a spectacle of these females, Goldblatt guides the audience, using thought-provoking objects and cleverly chosen moments to represent the females as people, rather than a product of the strip club.

Although there is nudity in the photographs, it plays such an insignificant role in the overall narrative of the series. For me, Goldblatt’s ability to direct the viewer’s attention past the obvious and encourage the viewer to focus on deciphering the photograph is highly impressive. I found he subtly uses objects, such as the comic book, to touch upon the identity and individuality of the females and really generate an interest in discovering more about the girls photographed. Moving past the physical indicators, Goldblatt captures beautiful moments of interaction between the women, some portraying vibrant and cheerful friendships, other images depicting the complete comfort around one another as they casually sit naked occupying themselves with ordinary activities, such as reading the newspaper. It is interesting that this relaxed atmosphere appears completely undisturbed by Goldblatt’s presence, so much so that there is a complete disregard for him. I find it mystifying how Goldblatt generated such a personal connection with the females for them to act so natual and somewhat vulerbale around him. He appears to have effortlessly become part of their community, despite the series being captured in such a short space of time, over four consecutive days and in the cramped dressing room, for me demonstrates Goldblatt’s strong photographic capabilities.

A conceptual undertone in the series touches upon the racial diversity in Soho at the time, which was considered predominately white. However, Soho was and continues to be largely diverse if you cared to look hard enough and John did care to look. During his career, he emigrated to South Africa in 1955, before creating the series and here he engaged with work surrounding marginalised communities in which he was sensitive to the inequalities faced from apartheid. I can only presume his previous work in South Africa influenced his thoughtfulness when creating this series, but to me it seems likely. John subtly showcases the underrepresented black British scene and the multiculturalism within the sex industry of Soho.

This image here particularly caught my attention, not only does it embody the racial integration within this female community, it also pays tribute to the ordinary lives of the women, their personalities featuring so prominently in the photograph. The beautifully natural scene showcases the complete ease of the women as they chat amongst themselves, take a drag on a cigarette and casually undress, whilst a child stands in the background equally as relaxed. Each individual occupied in their own little moment, John appears invisible as he stands behind the camera and snaps the scene, which I feel is the true magic of the series. When viewing the photographs, I feel as though I am in the room, I feel a commonality with the women, part of their community.

Overall, I feel Goldblatt’s images provide a refreshing perspective regarding the sex industry in Soho, as well as tackling themes of race, femininity and community. Each image in the series holds a wealth of knowledge surrounding the females photographed, overlooking their occupation and the casual nudity. Goldblatt makes the inaccessible, accessible in his series by providing the audience with an insider view on the reality of strip club and the women within the occupation.

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writer & visual artist