The appeal of female strippers to men is not widely regarded as needing explanation. But what of their appeal to women? As the author of a biography of Josephine Baker, the 1920s performer and sexpot, I thought I understood why the photographer Sarah Schorr might be intrigued by burlesque dancers. Their unabashed self-display may possibly be envied by sedate and inhibited women intellectuals. Their joyous vulgarity can seem to some of us a forbidden pleasure. We are the thinkers, the writers, the artists; “they” are the ones who perform femininity. Not only do we get a kick out of them, we learn from them and take heart from them. We are relieved to sense that for them, too, femininity is not a natural display, not an outpouring, but a stylized show, a performance. Yet in their company it all seems light-hearted and funny. Trained in current academic ideologies, we fret about our interest in the performers. We fear we are appropriating them, a terrible thing to do in these times, yet our lives are so much the richer for including them that we continue to do it, however furtively. In fact it is more than a desire. It is a need. Half our consciousness believes they are Other and blames us for our exoticism, but half of us knows they are Self and thinks that by writing about or photographing them, we are giving them something that they, too, want in their lives and do not have. They, like us, like all human beings, are more than they can enact.

Sarah Schorr’s obsession began, wholesomely enough, with the Bindelstiff Family Cirkus in Times Square. Bindelstiff is a variety show featuring magicians, clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists, bubble sculptors, sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, stilt-walkers, and burlesque dancers – the whole range of circus and vaudeville acts that are so old-fashioned and endangered by newer forms of entertainment that they are enjoying a comeback. Schorr was there to see the trapeze artists whose small and toy-like feminine packaging contrasted so interestingly with the strength they needed to perform their routines. One night a dancer named Harvest Moon performed a burlesque act, and Schorr was riveted. She started attending Harvest Moon’s performances as often as she could, at first photographing her only from the audience. Harvest Moon was about her age and seemed smart. Schorr suspected she was a trained dancer. Her alter-ego? Certainly it was that moment of creative precipitation when an artist becomes instantly fascinated by the possibilities, the similarities, and the mysteries of someone very different. In other circumstances, we call it love.

Schorr went backstage at an informal burlesque show in Brooklyn to say hello to Harvest Moon before her performance. She was invited to stay and allowed to photograph. Schorr shot twelve rolls quickly and started going backstage again and again, twice a week, over the course of two years. Through Harvest Moon, she met Julie Atlas Muz, Miss Saturn, Fritzy Collins, and the performer who calls herself “The World Famous Bob” and describes herself as a female female impersonator. Schorr followed these women to The Pussycat Lounge in the financial district, The Slipper Room in the East Village, The Cutting Room near Chelsea, and various other “alternative-art” performance spaces throughout the city. Backstage in such spots was generally small and often not especially picturesque, but Schorr loved the intimacy of backstage life – how the women shared mirrors, make-up, and clothes, helped each other with their costumes. The atmosphere was warm and busy. She liked being able to observe the transition from street clothes and street personalities to dancing costumes and stage presentation. She especially loved the moments just before the dancers stepped on stage when they were nervous and the room was charged with anticipation. In the photographs, we notice how stage curtains and make-up become the leitmotifs of this transition.

At this stage of life, Schorr was making her own transitions. Six years out of college, newly out of art school, having recently met the man she would marry, she was at the commencement of adult life. The photographs of Borrowed Glitz, read biographically, are her own rite of transition. In her friendships with the burlesque dancers, she created her own quasi-tribal initiation group. Spending as much time with them as she did and most of the rest of her time in the darkroom or arranging future visits, she lived less with her family and usual friends, more in her self and the borrowed world of burlesque. By the end of her self-devised initiation she had become not only an adult but triumphantly an artist in her own right, having found her subject and style.

With time she had begun to focus on specific pieces of the dancers’ kits and apparel. Fritzy Collins pointed the way by allowing Schorr to see sketches of costume designs she had made and showing her how she would alter a bathing suit or a bra, perhaps adding a string of sequins or some beads, to turn it into a costume. It immediately occurred to Schorr that all of Fritzy’s costumes should be catalogued.

A few months later, she realized that she wanted to document The World Famous Bob’s Marilyn costume, the pink dress on the cover of this book. Since it was very precious to Bob, Schorr asked if she could merely borrow it for twenty-four hours, and when she went to pick it up, Bob offered Schorr her rhinestone necklace as well, explaining that it was the gift she had bought herself after getting sober. Schorr treated these prized objects gingerly, reverently. Her method was direct scanning, placing objects on the platen of a flat-bed scanner. With Bob’s necklace, she first removed it from its plastic bag and tried arranging it in different ways. It wasn’t until she put it back in the bag and scanned the whole ensemble that Schorr captured what she wanted: the preciousness of the object to Bob as well as its innate beauty. She also felt that the plastic bag expressed, in its cold coloring and industrial texture, the distanced stance of the investigator herself. But we may beg to differ with the artist here, for surely to many of us the objects in plastic bags convey the artist’s infatuation as well as the owner’s and not her distance. Schorr had moved from audience to documenter to collector and beyond, to confirmed fetishist.

She enjoyed transporting the objects in their plastic bags from the dancers’ homes to her own studio. Carrying, for example, Julie Atlas Muz’s gold sequined costume in a striped plastic bag, she was delighted to think that other people might take her for a dancer or performer. It was not that she wanted to try these things on. She did not try them on. She looked at them in their plastic bags and photographed them. She loved the effect of the plastic on the objects. She loved the half-hidden, half-revealed female shapes inside, the signs of use on the objects, the makeup smudges and repairs. It reminded her of being a child and watching grown-up women dressing and putting on make-up, how strange and obsessive it seemed, yet painterly and lovely, too, with its palettes and love of color. The plastic bags – who would have thought it? – served to express that exciting girlhood feeling of being on the outside of femininity looking in at a treat that will some day be yours. This is how an artist is born, following one thing to another, closing out the rest of the world and its preconceptions, attending only to her own obsessions and trying to understand them, discovering the sources of her own delight and then embodying them in works of art for the world to see.

This is what Sarah Schorr has done in Borrowed Glitz, and I hope that many others will be as ravished and instructed by her work as I have been.

Phyllis Rose New York City November 2006

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The Appeal

The appeal of female strippers to men is not widely regarded as needing explanation. But what of their appeal to women? As the author of a biography of Josephine Baker, the 1920s performer and sexpot, I thought I understood why the photographer Sarah Schorr might be intrigued by burlesque dancers. Their unabashed self-display may possibly be envied by sedate and inhibited women intellectuals. Their joyous vulgarity can seem to some of us a forbidden pleasure. We are the thinkers, the writers, the artists; “they” are the ones who perform femininity. Not only do we get a kick out of them, we learn from them and take heart from them. We are relieved to sense that for them, too, femininity is not a natural display, not an outpouring, but a stylized show, a performance. Yet in their company it all seems light-hearted and funny. Trained in current academic ideologies, we fret about our interest in the performers. We fear we are appropriating them, a terrible thing to do in these times, yet our lives are so much the richer for including them that we continue to do it, however furtively. In fact it is more than a desire. It is a need. Half our consciousness believes they are Other and blames us for our exoticism, but half of us knows they are Self and thinks that by writing about or photographing them, we are giving them something that they, too, want in their lives and do not have. They, like us, like all human beings, are more than they can enact.

Sarah Schorr’s obsession began, wholesomely enough, with the Bindelstiff Family Cirkus in Times Square. Bindelstiff is a variety show featuring magicians, clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists, bubble sculptors, sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, stilt-walkers, and burlesque dancers – the whole range of circus and vaudeville acts that are so old-fashioned and endangered by newer forms of entertainment that they are enjoying a comeback. Schorr was there to see the trapeze artists whose small and toy-like feminine packaging contrasted so interestingly with the strength they needed to perform their routines. One night a dancer named Harvest Moon performed a burlesque act, and Schorr was riveted. She started attending Harvest Moon’s performances as often as she could, at first photographing her only from the audience. Harvest Moon was about her age and seemed smart. Schorr suspected she was a trained dancer. Her alter-ego? Certainly it was that moment of creative precipitation when an artist becomes instantly fascinated by the possibilities, the similarities, and the mysteries of someone very different. In other circumstances, we call it love.

Schorr went backstage at an informal burlesque show in Brooklyn to say hello to Harvest Moon before her performance. She was invited to stay and allowed to photograph. Schorr shot twelve rolls quickly and started going backstage again and again, twice a week, over the course of two years. Through Harvest Moon, she met Julie Atlas Muz, Miss Saturn, Fritzy Collins, and the performer who calls herself “The World Famous Bob” and describes herself as a female female impersonator. Schorr followed these women to The Pussycat Lounge in the financial district, The Slipper Room in the East Village, The Cutting Room near Chelsea, and various other “alternative-art” performance spaces throughout the city. Backstage in such spots was generally small and often not especially picturesque, but Schorr loved the intimacy of backstage life – how the women shared mirrors, make-up, and clothes, helped each other with their costumes. The atmosphere was warm and busy. She liked being able to observe the transition from street clothes and street personalities to dancing costumes and stage presentation. She especially loved the moments just before the dancers stepped on stage when they were nervous and the room was charged with anticipation. In the photographs, we notice how stage curtains and make-up become the leitmotifs of this transition.

At this stage of life, Schorr was making her own transitions. Six years out of college, newly out of art school, having recently met the man she would marry, she was at the commencement of adult life. The photographs of Borrowed Glitz, read biographically, are her own rite of transition. In her friendships with the burlesque dancers, she created her own quasi-tribal initiation group. Spending as much time with them as she did and most of the rest of her time in the darkroom or arranging future visits, she lived less with her family and usual friends, more in her self and the borrowed world of burlesque. By the end of her self-devised initiation she had become not only an adult but triumphantly an artist in her own right, having found her subject and style.

With time she had begun to focus on specific pieces of the dancers’ kits and apparel. Fritzy Collins pointed the way by allowing Schorr to see sketches of costume designs she had made and showing her how she would alter a bathing suit or a bra, perhaps adding a string of sequins or some beads, to turn it into a costume. It immediately occurred to Schorr that all of Fritzy’s costumes should be catalogued.

A few months later, she realized that she wanted to document The World Famous Bob’s Marilyn costume, the pink dress on the cover of this book. Since it was very precious to Bob, Schorr asked if she could merely borrow it for twenty-four hours, and when she went to pick it up, Bob offered Schorr her rhinestone necklace as well, explaining that it was the gift she had bought herself after getting sober. Schorr treated these prized objects gingerly, reverently. Her method was direct scanning, placing objects on the platen of a flat-bed scanner. With Bob’s necklace, she first removed it from its plastic bag and tried arranging it in different ways. It wasn’t until she put it back in the bag and scanned the whole ensemble that Schorr captured what she wanted: the preciousness of the object to Bob as well as its innate beauty. She also felt that the plastic bag expressed, in its cold coloring and industrial texture, the distanced stance of the investigator herself. But we may beg to differ with the artist here, for surely to many of us the objects in plastic bags convey the artist’s infatuation as well as the owner’s and not her distance. Schorr had moved from audience to documenter to collector and beyond, to confirmed fetishist.

She enjoyed transporting the objects in their plastic bags from the dancers’ homes to her own studio. Carrying, for example, Julie Atlas Muz’s gold sequined costume in a striped plastic bag, she was delighted to think that other people might take her for a dancer or performer. It was not that she wanted to try these things on. She did not try them on. She looked at them in their plastic bags and photographed them. She loved the effect of the plastic on the objects. She loved the half-hidden, half-revealed female shapes inside, the signs of use on the objects, the makeup smudges and repairs. It reminded her of being a child and watching grown-up women dressing and putting on make-up, how strange and obsessive it seemed, yet painterly and lovely, too, with its palettes and love of color. The plastic bags – who would have thought it? – served to express that exciting girlhood feeling of being on the outside of femininity looking in at a treat that will some day be yours. This is how an artist is born, following one thing to another, closing out the rest of the world and its preconceptions, attending only to her own obsessions and trying to understand them, discovering the sources of her own delight and then embodying them in works of art for the world to see.

This is what Sarah Schorr has done in Borrowed Glitz, and I hope that many others will be as ravished and instructed by her work as I have been.

Phyllis Rose New York City November 2006

BLOG SECTIONS