Words by Ryan Michael Commins
I arrived at Roebling Tea Room a little early to meet with photographer Marc McAndrews. They weren’t open yet so I waited outside, looking at a defaced mural by Australian artist, Lister. I wondered what this guy was going to look like, what he would be like. I stupidly realized that I had no idea of his age, race, etc. I began picturing a balding white man in his forties, touch of a gut, five thousand dollar camera slung around his neck. Eventually one of the waiters came out to sweep and told me it was okay if I waited inside, thinking I was there for a date.
I sat waiting with my steeping Earl Grey, a young man walked in with a bag and scruff and glasses. Not terribly different from myself. I knew this was Marc McAndrews and that he already knew who I was. We went through pleasant preliminaries as I got my first chance to flip through his freshly printed book, Nevada Rose. His first published book by Brooklyn’s Umbrage Editions, is a photo exploration of Nevada’s legal prostitution houses.
The book covers more than thirty brothels, the entire spectrum of the Nevada sex trade, from the illustrious Bunny Ranch (ushered into general knowledge by the HBO show Cathouse) to the far-out and obscure small town places with names like, The Pussycat Saloon. He later decided that, “Shedding light on the false stigma behind brothels” was a suitable way to describe the drive behind this book. Accompanying the photographs is an interview with the self-appointed Pimp Master General of America, Dennis Hof, an essay by feminist anthropologist and author Patty Kelly and a glossary of terms used in the business of sex.
There is also a short story by the photographer himself on how he got involved in all this. His story begins with the line, “Have you ever been to a brothel?” He told me this story. I began to notice that his recollections tended to include a hangover themed chapter and I decided I liked this man.
The first thing that struck me about the photographs was the color, each page vivid and stark, standing on its own in gorgeous natural saturation. He finds beauty in all places. The rural exteriors juxtapose the bordello itself against the calm land of the generally God fearing people. He gives you glimpses of the working machine: the cooks, the birthday cards and pets, the routine, these are disarming details of sex-for-sale. The portraits are captivating, the people are the soul of this book. The unabashed customers and the girls alike, captured forever in a moment already faded from memory.
I told Marc that I found one of his pictures to be oddly haunting. The photo was of a woman in a powder blue dress sitting in a chair and looking at me. He told me her name and her story and it became clear to me that this was not about exploitation. This book is not tits and ass. He knows these people, in some cases he lived with them while he was shooting. He tells me about their lives. One of the women not pictured in the book was a ninth grade math teacher who flew in for the summers. Their backstories ranged from recession themed sob story to outright Hustler cliché. For some it was strictly for the money for others it was for the kicks of public degradation and for many it seemed, it was both. It is, in short: a job.
It’s while looking at page 98, I see it this way for the first time. The image is two large whiteboards displaying lists of girls and their daily schedules and room assignments. Written in purple dry-erase marker it says, “Kate would like to work a half day on Sunday. Needs approval.” All I could think about was the day-to-day minutia of my many shitty jobs and any semblance of glamour was gone. He told me what he was expecting was scary and drug-fueled and what he got was practically an office environment. “You know, no one wants to work with tweakers who steal your shit.” He spoke of these women matter-of-factly, though not callously or with any hint of judgment. He spoke of the subject simply like a man that knew the life, understood it and accepted its existence.
It was at this point I asked him the question that had been on my mind since I first received this assignment, ‘How could you afford to go shoot in Nevada for five years?’ His reply was simple. He told me that he had a small room in a shared apartment in New York and he saved all of his money to buy a van and film (that’s right film, not digital) and he would drive across the country and shoot until the van died. He did this over and over again until it was done. That took five years. Sometimes he slept in his van and sometimes he shared a trailer or otherwise was put up by whatever brothel he was documenting. They became acclimated to his presence and friendships formed over breakfasts and water cooler conversations. He later told me with a laugh that now most of his Facebook friends are prostitutes.
We traded more stories until the tea room became too crowded. I suggested we walk up Bedford and continue our conversation in the sun. He told me about his struggle to get the approval to shoot the Bunny Ranch. After many phone calls and the usual hokey-pokey negotiations, Marc decided to go to there to try to convince Dennis to let him shoot in person.
He found himself sitting in Dennis’ office while waiting for him to finish a phone call with Larry Flint. Then on the other line Ron Jeremy called. A moment later, line three, Heidi Fleiss. He found himself present for a phone conference of the Justice League of Pussy Peddling. Finally Dennis gets off the phone, looks at Marc and says, “So, I don’t want to work with you, say what you gotta’ say.” I could see a glint of that big-show anxiety in his eyes as he recalled this moment for me:
“I don’t even know what I said. So, I said something. And then all of a sudden he says, ‘Okay, so when do you want to shoot this?’ I was like, ‘Now! How about now?”
I asked Marc what was up next for him and his answer was equally intriguing and evasive. All he said was “It’s more Americana, but the opposite end of it from this.” I can’t wait to see what’s in store for Marc McAndrews and his four by five.
Nevada Rose is a book for those who like to experience underground America. Its stricken with the same candor as old black and whites of migrant workers. This is documentation that defines its era. Always a heated topic for politicians, these places might not be around too much longer. It is obvious that this project was a labor of love for Marc and as a result we have a completely unique perspective of a world that previously lived in shrouded infamy. The photos tell a story that neither exalts nor demonizes the subject. All of that is for you to decide.
To get more info on the book and Marc McAndrews click here.