Visual Arts Feature: Elizabeth Waterman’s MONEYGAME — Reconsidering the Lives of Strippers through a Female Gaze
By Susie Davidson
As a fellow female artist who is working to develop her own career, photographer Elizabeth Waterman acknowledges and honors the humanity and dedication of her subjects.
Let’s get it out of the way first. MONEYGAME offers a provocative and respectful photographic portrayal of women who make a living as strippers and exotic dancers.
“We are living in changing times, and stripping has changed along with them,” explained photographer Elizabeth Waterman. “They are organizing picket lines for workplace safety and unionization. Some groups, including trans strippers, are building supportive communities. They are vying for higher visibility and mainstream acceptance.”
Which they deserve, like all of us. These women are often using the income they earn from stripping and dancing for the same things we use ours for — to pay off student loans, raise a family, buy a home, or start a business. As a fellow female artist who is working to develop her own career, Waterman acknowledges and honors the humanity and dedication of her subjects.
“For years I was hesitant to document the world of strippers and other sex workers, but I was mesmerized by it all the same. I needed to find a way in,” Waterman recalled. “I scoured the city for a strip club where I could take pictures.” In Queens, she found a club where the manager allowed her in. “It took me a while to find my footing. Black walls and sticky floors. Groping eyes. Clawing sexuality. The girls stepping out to smoke blunts in the alley. I felt the cold ripples of their suspicion; no one quite understood what I was doing there.”
Anderson Yezerski has just presented the exhibit Days of Punk, a photography collection by Waterman’s husband, Michael Grecco. (Arts Fuse review) Artists who have exhibited their work at the gallery include John Coplans, Lalla Essaydi, Neeta Madahar, and John O’Reilly, whose multimedia exhibitions have been shown at the Whitney Biennial, MoMA, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover.
AYG was founded by Howard Yezerski, who opened his first gallery in 1968 in Andover. He relocated to Boston in 1988, and has been in the South End since 2008. Director and co-owner of the gallery, Renee Anderson, holds a bachelor of arts degree in art history and an associate’s degree in photography. Prior to Anderson Yezerski, she was at the Kabinett Gallery in Boston.
At the opening reception on June 23, former WBCN Program Director and WGBH and Indie617 radio station DJ Oedipus, gallery director Anderson, and design and architectural executive Denise Korn were among those milling about and taking in the images.
Photographer and graphic artist Kathy Chapman and former Boston Rock Magazine editor, Boston Herald and current Boston Globe contributor Tristram Lozaw were also in attendance.
A Los Angeles-based fine art photographer who holds a B.A. in fine art from the University of Southern California, Waterman is an emerging artist whose work is innovative, daring, and compelling. The composition of her photos reflects diligence and enthusiasm. The shots are cinematic, dramatic, and vibrant: the viewer can sense the mutual connection between both sides of the lens. And hey, she’s helping to get viewers to think about these very hardworking women with courtesy and consideration.
Waterman is also quite enterprising. She shoots across the US and around the world, often in nightlife environments, documenting subsets of society that include drag, stripping, and adult film artists. Two years ago, she launched her coffee-table 2021 book MONEYGAME, published by XYZ (Lisbon, Portugal).
She works in her Santa Monica studio in a home that she shares with her husband.
Her own life has been one of exploration. She was born in Taos, New Mexico and raised in Chicago. While she lived in New York City from 2016 through 2020, she chronicled women who made their livelihoods in strip clubs. She visited dozens of nightclubs there, as well as in Los Angeles, Miami, Las Vegas, and New Orleans.
What did the women think? Well, each subject in her portfolio gave permission, because Waterman was able to establish a respectful and warm rapport with them. That was of course requisite to gain their trust, and also to photographically represent them with authenticity.
“It took months to get access to my first clubs, and find my footing,” Waterman recalled. “No one quite understood what I was doing there.” She kept at it, going in each week. “I helped to collect the dollar bills littering the stage,” she said. “The dancers began to warm to me. I showed them my work, and they liked how I saw them. Soon they were volunteering to pose on the pole.”
Waterman said that she will continue to explore the lives of strippers in these modern — and in some places increasingly regressive — times. She is adding to the MONEYGAME portfolio as she visits locations around the world and is currently developing a companion documentary series for television.
Susie Davidson is a longtime freelance correspondent based in Brookline, MA. Her articles have appeared in news outlets including the Houston Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Forward, Boston Globe, WickedLocal/Gannett, Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post.