ArtWeekend

Glimmers of Modernism from a 19th-Century Bordello

A brothel customer’s photographs of 19th-century prostitution, made with sympathy and imagination.

William Goldman, “Untitled” (circa 1892), vintage silver print, 3 x 5 inches (all images courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery)

Sex.

Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.

There. Now we have your attention.

So, too, will Working Girls, an exhibition of remarkable archival photos that has just opened at Ricco/Maresca Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district (where it will remain on view through October 13). These photographs, which are also featured in a new book of the same name published by Glitterati Editions and assembled by Robert Flynn Johnson, a longtime, San Francisco-based photography curator and collector, are intriguing documents — as both the exhibition and the new volume’s shared subtitle announce — of “an American brothel, circa 1892.”

They are also some of the most unexpected, inventive, sometimes even ravishing images ever to have emerged from the overlooked corners of late-19th-century photography’s dusty attic. Most notable — and uncanny — are the ways in which the lighting, subject matter, and technique of some of these images unwittingly anticipate what would later be regarded as the novel aesthetic principles and sophisticated, tradition-bucking attitude of modernist photography.

Here, the literally naked buck who was responsible for producing this portfolio was William I. Goldman (1856-1922), a commercial photographer based in Reading, in southeastern Pennsylvania. He was known as “Billy” to his pals and to the practitioners of the “social evil” or the “necessary evil,” as prostitution was called in his time, whose lives in a well-appointed maison close in Reading he documented with sympathy and imagination.

William Goldman, “Untitled” (circa 1892), vintage silver print, 3.5 x 5.5 inches

Johnson, a collector specializing in so-called vernacular photography, a category that refers to generic images whose creators might be known or anonymous — photo-booth headshots, family-vacation snapshots, police mug shots, and other kinds of flea-market finds — is the curator emeritus of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, the division of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco that holds collections of prints, drawings, illustrated books, and photographs. Over a career that spanned more than three decades, Johnson organized exhibitions focusing on such subjects as photography from India from the 1800s and images of vegetables, fruits, and flowers by the British, gardener-photographer Charles Jones (1866-1959). (In a recent e-mail interview, Johnson noted that he has long been big on photographic rarities from the 19th century.)

Several years ago, during one of his collecting forays, Johnson stumbled upon what turned out to be a sizable group of bordello scenes — Goldman’s photos — and instantly recognized their uniqueness and historical value. He found a first batch in a vendor’s stall at an old-postcards fair northeast of San Francisco, and then stayed in contact with the seller until, over time, he was able to acquire a few hundred prints, for which no negatives are known to exist.

In the book Working Girls, Johnson recalls making his discovery. He learned, to his dismay, that the photos originally had been mounted in albums, which the vendor had dismantled so she could sell the images individually. That was enough to make any serious collector-historian shudder, but that disappointment had a “silver lining,” he writes, noting that, because the merchant “could not cut out the photographs without cutting through the mounted images on the other side” of each page of each album, she “prudently” hired a professional paper conservator “to carefully float off, press, and dry the images so that they were preserved in immaculate condition.”

William Goldman, “Untitled” (circa 1892), vintage silver print, 3.5 x 4.5 inches

Johnson then aimed to find out what he could about when and where, and by whom, the whorehouse photos had been made. His only clue was that, in one of the photos, a naked woman, resting on a bed, is clearly reading a copy of the Reading Eagle, a local newspaper that is still being published today. Johnson’s next stop: Reading, Pennsylvania.

Through a knowledgeable member of the city’s historical society, Johnson learned that the women portrayed in the photographs had been employees there of the bordello owner Sarah Shearer (1848-1909) in the late 1800s. Johnson also found out that Shearer, who was known as “Sallie” or “Sal,” had worked as a dressmaker before turning, as he writes in Working Girls, “to the necessary but far more lucrative profession of a madam running a brothel.” Although Shearer experienced routine scrapes with the law, paying fines and serving short stints in jail, Johnson notes in the book that her successful business allowed her “to buy a house for her two sons and ride around town in a black tasseled carriage with Belgian lace curtains.”

Goldman, who frequented Shearer’s “house,” apparently became friendly with its mistress and her “girls,” and over time produced a substantive photographic record of their lives (which also served as something of a diary of his own). He caught them in moments of repose, or while dressing — or, perhaps more often, undressing — for work, or in other unself-conscious poses.

In one photo, a chubby woman, half wrapped in a sheet, sits on the edge of a bed, fresh from a nap or perhaps from a work session, holding and examining a shoe. In another, a naked “girl” squats on a velvet-upholstered chair, her back to the camera. (Think Madonna’s 1992 Sex book, without the staged lasciviousness.) Elsewhere, decked out as the biblical Mary Magdalene in a fluffy white shift, another one of Shearer’s employees clasps a tall, white, wooden cross and gazes upward to the heavens with the melodrama of a silent-movie queen.

William Goldman, “Untitled” (circa 1892), vintage silver print, 4.25 x 3 inches

In one unexpected series of pictures, Goldman depicts a naked young man, a customer of Shearer’s “house,” posing with a pistol, showing off his physique, and hanging from a pair of gymnast’s rings (installed in a whorehouse?). In a surprising self-portrait, Goldman, mustachioed, uncircumcised, and holding a robe, stands naked in a carpeted room, his head turned away, in profile, from the camera. (At Ricco/Maresca, 40 images from Goldman’s larger body of work are on view, offering visitors a good sense of the range of his subject matter and of his approach to making photographs.)

Admirers of classic modernist photography will savor the subtle affinities in some of Goldman’s images, especially their plays of light and shadow, with the American photographer Edward Weston’s female nudes — stark compositions that the late art critic Hilton Kramer once called an investigation of “the landscape of the human body.”

Perhaps more vividly, Goldman’s pictures of voluptuous buttocks, folded arms caressing bulbous breasts, and jutting, kicked-back, crossed, or dangling legs in all their joyous legginess bring to mind the British photographer Bill Brandt’s sensuous nudes and nearly sculptural studies of body parts. Art-history buffs will note that Goldman made his bordello photos about two decades before E.J. Bellocq (1873-1949) produced his photographic record of life in New Orleans’ Storyville red-light district.

William Goldman, “Untitled” (circa 1892), vintage silver print, 3.5 x 4.5 inches

Johnson told me, “The first thing that struck me about Goldman’s photographs was that they are not pornographic; theirs is decidedly not the kind of salacious, wink-wink, ‘dirty’-postcard subject matter that was prevalent in European photography of his time, especially in France.” He noted, for example, “a sequence of Goldman’s photos showing a woman naturalistically undressing,” which are undoubtedly voyeuristic but also impressed him by the way “they parallel the ‘keyhole’ paintings and drawings of Edgar Degas.”

Curiously, many of Goldman’s photos from Shearer’s Pennsylvania “house of ill fame” may be seen as effective portraits of their subjects, as though titillation were less of a concern to him than capturing the emotional-psychological veracity of his encounters with the brothel women he knew.

Among the contributors to the book Working Girls are Dennita Sewell, the curator of fashion at the Phoenix Art Museum; Ruth Rosen, a professor emerita at the University of California, Davis; and Dita Von Teese, a burlesque dancer and model who is known for promoting so-called neo-burlesque. As Sewell, who examines the commercial, historical, and social aspects of fashion in the courses she teaches at the University of Arizona in Phoenix, told me in a recent e-mail interview, the high-quality corsets and other “unmentionables” the women in Goldman’s pictures lounge around in, squeeze themselves into, or languidly peel off were not only parts of their work uniforms but could even be seen as self-esteem-boosting job perks. “Wearing nice undergarments would have been a privilege for the ‘girls,’” Sewell observed.

In her essay, Sewell explains that Goldman’s subjects were “high-class prostitutes,” whose “fancy dresses, undergarments, and stockings were tools of seduction.” She adds, “Their customers expected [them] to be wearing this level of finery, for it added to the fantasy that the prostitutes, adorned in expensive undergarments, were ‘proper’ women who[m] they could have their way with — for a price.”

William Goldman, “Untitled” (circa 1892), vintage silver print, 5 x 2.5 inches

This newly discovered part of Goldman’s largely forgotten oeuvre — he made his living shooting ordinary studio portraits — shines a fascinating light on an otherwise conventional, late-19th-century urbanite. A local-business directory published in Reading in 1896 lauded Goldman’s “superior workmanship” and described him as “an exceedingly popular gentleman” who was associated with many of “the city’s secret and social organizations” (meaning the Masons, the Shriners, and the Elks).

If only his respectable fellow citizens had known that one of those “secret” clubs held its gatherings in “Sallie” Shearer’s parlor — and between her sheets.

Meanwhile, equipped with his camera, “Billy” Goldman knowingly and artistically documented a slice of his life that was also an essential part of the covert identity he crafted quite deliberately for himself and whose role he played — that of an apparently lustful bohemian behind the mask of a buttoned-down, good Pennsylvania burgher.

Looking back, just how ahead-of-its-time modern — and sexy — was that?

Working Girls, An American Brothel, Circa 1892: The Secret Photographs of William Goldman continues at Ricco/Maresca Gallery (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 13.

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