(Schiffer Publishing) In June of 2009 photographer Brian C. Janes embarked on a journey that would take him over 14,000 miles around the United States. He visited the homes of more than 100 Burlesque artists and he made portraits of them, not on stage or during performances, but in their homes, surrounded by the stuff of their domestic lives, like their books, their cats, their carpets, and in some cases their laundry.
Not only did Janes ask his subjects to pose for portraiture, he also asked them a single question; ‘What does Burlesque mean to you?’
Superficially, the result of the photographer’s seemingly enviable odyssey is a book of portraits and accompanying text – where subjects pose in full costume whilst discussing the art form in which they work. More substantially, this book genuinely captures something of the heart of modern Burlesque, and of broader life.
A very brief history of Burlesque is offered in the opening pages of the book, along with a Merriam-Webster definition of the art form. Like much of what’s contained here, it’s a smart juxtaposition of details and nuance. Through the interviews and portraits Janes doesn’t simply ask ‘What is Burlesque?’ he asks what the tradition means to participants. Facts are acknowledged, but the Truth is explored.
Some artists discuss the historic and artistic background of the tradition, whilst all live in the ‘here and now’. Charlotte Treuse, standing in plumes in a floral boudoir with starlets on the wall describes a sense of community. Coco Lectric, reclining with cats, a snake, a dog and a prairie dog, expresses a love for the power and grace that can be expressed when dancing. Jeez Loueez, standing amongst Sponge Bob cushions, enjoys the comedic flourishes of what’s possible. Tigger (The Godfather of Boylesque) pouncing from a bathroom, over a ceramic tiger’s head says, that to him “Burlesque means sex plus humor plus self-expression”.
In the opening pages of the book the project is described as being somewhat like a prism. One question refracts very differently through all subject-interviewees. The colors on display are intriguing, compelling and quite endearing. Janes plays with the physical environment too. Cheeky little statements are made visually as well as verbally, and literal as well as metaphorical light reflects off everything with genuine warmth. Hai Fleisch playfully puts a man’s decapitated head into an oven, Cherry Bomb applies lipstick in a less than infinite number of mirrors and Tomahawk Tassels aims a bow and arrow at the pillow target on her bed. There is a very real sense that aside from the obvious - the costumes, the cameras and lighting – these are people acutely aware of the need to create more from life than their usual day jobs as librarians, psychologists, bartenders and ‘traditional’ dancers.
It’s a smart decision to remove performers from their stages, and have them in full costume in the more ordinary surroundings of their homes; it’s a device that makes character, costume and energy pop. There is a heartening level of disclosure and trust between subject and photographer, so both portraits and answers to the big question are equally generous.
There is a strange parallel between this book and Robert Frank’s Americans – another cross-country compilation of images, capturing the spirit of something broad yet deeply personal. There are also echoes of Kyle Cassidy’s book Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in Their Homes. Janes acknowledges the latter as an inspiration for It’s All That Glitters. However, what distinguishes this book from the lineage in which it belongs is the relationship between author and subject matter. The artists photographed and interviewed here are not dislocated from their society – they are exceptional, but they are also inclusive. These artists may be somewhat marginalized, and work in a sometimes misunderstood tradition, but they react with creativity and openness of spirit, not with resignation or confrontation. Janes is embedded briefly in their homes and he listens, and he watches. There is no cross-examination, and there are no wrong answers. He conveys an interest in meanings, rather than facts – and that is where emotive art hits home.
The 'It's All That Glitters: Burlesque Extravaganza' - a party, a performance and an opportunity to meet featured artists and author of the book will be held on Thursday July 26th 2012 at Busby's East in Los Angeles, CA.