95 Rivington St
January 11 - March 3
Susan Meiselas took her first photography class when she was in her early twenties, studying at Harvard and living in a Cambridge boardinghouse on Irving Street. Her final project from the course, “44 Irving Street,” 1971, matched portraits of her neighbors with texts that described how they saw themselves in her pictures. The wild card in the series is Meiselas’s own self-portrait, double-exposed, a ghostly trace over a sturdy wooden chair. This is the first image you’ll see if you visit Meiselas’s blockbuster retrospective, up until May 20 at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. And it’s the last image you’ll catch if you duck down into the reception area of this gallery, featuring a much smaller, piston-like presentation of Meiselas’s art: twenty-five photographs from her groundbreaking series “Carnival Strippers,” 1972–75.
Meiselas spent four summers in the 1970s traveling through New England, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, meeting young women who made some kind of life stripteasing for small-town carnivals. This exhibition, bracingly relevant for work more than forty years old, emphasizes the portraits of the girls Meiselas got to know. Sometimes we get their names—Coffee, Carlisle, PA, 1975; Mitzi, Tunbridge, VT, 1974; or Sammy, Essex Junction, VT, 1974—while others are merely described as “the new girl,” or “the star.” The one recurring figure is Lena. We see her fresh-faced and bold (Lena on the Bally Box, Essex Junction, VT, 1973) or flopped down exhausted in bed (Lena in the motel, Barton, VT, 1974). We hear her in a pair of audio files, too: The grain of her voice slips from adrenalized to defeated as the seasons pass. “I’ve got a mind; I want to use it for myself,” she declares at a decidedly raw moment. “I want to be me; I don’t want to be anybody else.” At a time when a woman’s agency in the matrix of power needs serious thinking every day, Meiselas’s work here is necessary, thoughtful, and brave.