The surreal facades of strip clubs in the United States

(CNN) — Some people travel the world in search of adventure, while others seek natural wonders, cultural highlights, or culinary experiences. But French photographer François Prost was looking for something entirely different on his recent trip to the United States: strip clubs.

From Miami to Los Angeles, Prost’s latest book, “Gentlemen’s Club,” charts his route across America through nearly 150 strip clubs with names like Pleasures, Temptations and Cookies N’ Cream. However, not a single naked woman is seen, as Prost’s camera focused exclusively on the buildings themselves, and specifically on their often colorful façades.

Over the course of five weeks in 2019, he traveled more than 6,000 miles, with the resulting photos capturing everything from the pastel hues of Florida’s Pink Pussycat Club to the venues hiding in plain sight in the country’s most religious states.

“I would divide these venues into two types: one is very integrated into the public landscape, and the other is a little more hidden and elusive,” Prost explains, in a conversation with CNN by video call and email.

The first type, he added, could be found in “very American” settings, such as “around amusement parks and fast food and malls.” The latter, however, sometimes seem indistinguishable from any store in a mall.

Prost said he found many such establishments along the Bible Belt, a socially conservative region in the south of the country. He was especially interested in exploring the area because of the apparent contrast between the prevalence of strip clubs and what he describes in his book as “extreme conservatism and puritanism.”

Prost insisted that he had little interest in the interiors or services of the strip clubs, which he always visited during the day. Instead, he hoped to learn more about American culture by creating objective, documentary-style photographs of establishments situated at the intersection of sex, gender, and commerce. Documenting changing attitudes towards sex through the lens of architecture, he added that the series was first and foremost a landscape photography project.

“The prism of this theme of strip club facades became a way of studying and trying to understand the country,” he wrote in “Gentlemen’s Club,” whose photographs will be part of an exhibition in Tokyo in March.

“(‘Gentlemen’s Club’ is) an objective overview of mainstream and gender views and the sexualization of the female image.”

“Bit strange”

The genesis of Prost’s project can be traced back to his 2018 series, “After Party,” which focused on the extravagant facades of French nightclubs. He said people often commented that the exteriors of the buildings looked like they were ripped straight out of American cities, sparking the idea that he should visit the United States and expand the project.

As he meticulously planned his trip, he was struck by not only the sheer number of strip clubs in the United States, but that, unlike in Europe, they often demanded to be seen. Hot pink walls, gigantic nude silhouettes, and even striped storefronts didn’t mask the kind of entertainment on offer within.

“A good example would be Las Vegas, where strip clubs are everywhere and their signs flash as much as a fast food (restaurant) or casino,” Prost explains.

Miami clubs used to be brightly painted, à la Wes Anderson. Other photos show venues covered in bright colors that contrast with their sparse desert setting.

If the stores were open during the day, Prost would go in and ask for permission to take photos in order “not to appear suspicious… and explain what my intentions were,” he said. The interiors rarely lived up to the tantalizing promises billed outside, but the photographer met a host of characters during his five-week trip, from indifferent doormen to project-enthusiastic managers.

“Most of the time, people agreed: 99% would accept a photo of the façade,” he explains, adding that they didn’t mind his presence as long as he didn’t photograph customers or people dancing.

“Some thought it was a bit strange, others got really excited and gave me their business card so I could send them the photo when I was done,” he explained.

However, Prost says his biggest surprise was how “normalized” strip clubs seemed to be in everyday life. As he reflects in his book, “the relationship that Americans seem to have with strip clubs is quite different from what is seen in Europe. Going to a strip club seems to be much more normalized… You go as a couple, or between friends at night to have fun”.

It struck him, for example, that many Las Vegas strip clubs double as restaurants, with happy hour deals, buffets, and special discounts for truckers or construction workers.

“I looked at some strip clubs that advertised themselves as a strip club and steakhouse, so you could eat a nice piece of meat (while) watching the strippers. That’s also very American to me,” she said, adding : “I’ve been told by some people I’ve met in Portland that there are even strip clubs (offering) vegan food.”

objects of desire

The facades are littered with jokes like “My sex life is like the Sahara, 2 palms, no dates” and pun-based names like Booby Trap and Bottoms Up. Prost’s documentary approach accentuates the surreal comedy of the billboards. But it also serves as a neutral lens through which the viewer can form her own opinion of the objectification of women.

By focusing on the faceless dancing bodies of female silhouettes and typical “girls, girls, girls” signs, “Gentleman’s Club” explores the objectification of women who, in reality, are completely absent from Prost’s works ( an observation that is reflected in the title of the book, which is a phrase that appears numerous times on the posters of his photographs). The strip clubs he visited promote women as objects of consumption, from the numerous food-themed names to an ad that reads: “1,000 beautiful girls and three ugly ones.”

For his next project, Prost plans to visit Japan to document the country’s love hotels, which fill a similar role to strip clubs in some parts of the United States: open secrets in a conservative society. But the photographer believes that the American establishments he visited say something unique about the country, something that has less to do with sexuality and more to do with the American dream.

What his project has shown him is, he said, this: “As long as you’re successful in terms of business, (it doesn’t matter) if your activity has to do with sex.”

“Gentlemen’s Club” will be exhibited at Agnes b. Galerie Boutique in Tokyo, Japan between March 17 and April 15, 2023. The book, published by Fisheye Editions, is available now.

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