Sunday, September 28, 2003

Philip Gefter

Working girls, without exoticism

Reagan Louie calls the images in Sex Work in Asia, on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, collaborations with the Asian women he has photographed over the last six years. Ying and Joy, Bangkok, 2000.
Reagan Louie calls the images in "Sex Work in Asia," on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, collaborations with the Asian women he has photographed over the last six years. "Ying and Joy, Bangkok, 2000."

PROSTITUTION may be the world's oldest profession, but you'd never know it from Reagan Louie's pictures of "working girls" in Asia. Young, stylish and playful, their freshness is an unexpected departure from the haggard patina of the all-night sex worker. An exhibition of these photographs, "Reagan Louie: Sex Work in Asia," has recently opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

A fifth-generation Chinese American, Mr. Louie began this project six years ago in Guangdong Province in southern China, his ancestral home and the focus of his previous documentary photographs. The global economy has brought to that region a growing number of international corporations and, with them, a thriving nightlife. For the young girls drawn there from rural villages, sex work is one of the few employment options available.

Mr. Louie began photographing these young prostitutes in the party atmosphere of a nightclub called the Golden Sand. On each of his subsequent visits to Asia, he ventured to a different country, photographing in red-light-district bars in Seoul, flashy sex emporiums in Bangkok and Image Clubs in Tokyo. Some of his subjects had no qualms about displaying their wares before the camera; in fact, many pictures in the show are far more explicit that those shown here.

How does the typical museum-goer distinguish Mr. Louie's pictures of unabashedly naked young women from the general run of pornographic imagery? Intention, for one thing. Mr. Louie writes in the accompanying catalog that, by returning to his ancestral home, he was aiming to reconcile both his Chinese and American identities. And, photographing in China, he noticed a different dynamic in his relationships to Asian women and American women. It was his intention to dispel the Western stereotypes and myths he had carried around about "exotic" Asian women.

MR. LOUIE did not take these photographs to titillate viewers. "The photographs of these sex workers were collaborations," he explains. "I was very aware of the nature of the relationship I had with the women, the power I had as a man and as an outsider, and the power of photography. I wanted to make clear to these women that I was photographing them for reasons other than sexual gratification. How much they understood or believed this would be evident in how willing they were to step out of expectations and present themselves as people."

That the photographs remain undeniably titillating need not be taken as proof that he failed; they tell us as much about the photographer's attractions as they do about his subject. "They are very beautiful pictures," says Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, "physically so, very allusive and colorful, layered, resonant, not easy, and certainly thoughtful and humane."

As part of the exhibition, an additional 50 images from the museum's collection are being shown, including work by E. J. Bellocq, who photographed prostitutes in New Orleans at the turn of the last century, and Brassai, who photographed "working women" in Paris at night in the 1920's and 30's. The additional pictures provide a context for understanding the documentary tradition to which Mr. Louie's work belongs. The exhibition is up through Dec. 7. A smaller show from the same body of Mr. Louie's work is at the Von Lintel Gallery in Manhattan through Saturday.

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Created: November 29, 2003
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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