Some people travel the world in search of adventure, while others seek natural wonders, cultural landmarks or culinary experiences. But French photographer Francois Prost he was looking for something completely different during his recent trip America: strip clubs.
From Miami to Los Angeles, Prost’s latest book “Gentlemen’s Club” traces its journey across the US through nearly 150 strip clubs with names like Pleasures, Temptations and Cookies N’ Cream. However, there is not a single nude woman to be seen, as Prost’s camera was trained exclusively on the buildings themselves – and especially their often colorful facades.
Over the course of five weeks in 2019, he covered more than 6,000 miles, with the resulting photos capturing everything from the pastel hues of Club Pink Pussycat in Florida to locations hiding in plain sight in the country’s more religious states.
“I would divide these places into two types: one is very integrated into the public landscape, and one is a little more hidden and secluded,” Prost said, speaking to CNN in a 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 locations, however, would sometimes look 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 particularly keen to explore 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 was not interested 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 at the intersection of sex, gender, and commerce. Documenting changing attitudes towards sex through the lens of architecture, he added that the series was primarily a landscape photography project.
“The prism of this theme of strip club facades became a way to study and try to understand the country,” he wrote in “Gentlemen’s Club,” photographs of which will appear in an exhibition in Tokyo in March.
“(‘Gentlemen’s Club’ is) an objective panorama of dominant views and gender and the sexualization of the female image.”
The genesis of Prost’s project dates back to his 2018 series, “After party”, which focused on the extravagant facades of French nightclubs. He said people frequently commented that the exterior of the buildings looked like they were plucked straight from American cities, prompting the idea that he should visit the US and expand the project.
As he meticulously planned his trip, he was surprised not only by the sheer volume of strip clubs in America, but also by the fact that, unlike in Europe, they often demanded to be seen. The hot pink walls, giant nude figures, and even the candy cane striped storefronts made no secret of the kind of entertainment on offer inside.
“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 sign,” Prost said.
Clubs in Miami were often brightly painted, On Wes Anderson shades. Other photos show bright covered locations that contrast with their sparse desert surroundings.
If the establishments were open during the day, Prost would go in and ask for permission to take photos to “not look suspicious … and explain what my intentions are,” he said. The interiors rarely lived up to the tantalizing promises plastered on the signs outside, but the photographer encountered a range of characters during his five-week journey, from indifferent bouncers to managers who were excited about the project.
“Most of the time, people were fine — 99 percent of them would say yes to a front image,” he said, adding that they usually didn’t mind his presence as long as he wasn’t taking photos of patrons or dancers.
“Some would think it was a bit weird, some would be really excited about it and give me their business card to send my picture when it’s done,” he said.
Prost said his biggest surprise, however, 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 you see 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.”
He was surprised, for example, that so many strip clubs in Las Vegas doubled as restaurants — many of them offering happy hours, buffets and special discounts for truck drivers or construction workers.
“I’ve noticed some strip clubs that would advertise themselves as a strip club and a steakhouse, so you can eat a big piece of meat (while) watching the strip. That’s also something that seems to me very American,” he said, adding, “I’ve heard from some people I’ve met in Portland that there are even strip clubs (that offer) vegan food.”
The facades are full of jokes like “My sex life is like the Sahara, 2 slaps, no dates” and pun names like Booby Trap and Bottoms Up. Prost’s documentary approach intensifies the surrealist comedy of the signs. But it also doubles as a neutral lens through which viewers can make up their own minds about the objectification of women.
Focusing on the faceless dancing bodies of female figures and the quintessential “girls girls girls” signs, “Gentleman’s Club” explores the commodification of women who are, in reality, completely absent from Prost’s work (an observation reflected in the book’s title, which is a phrase that appears countless times on signs throughout his photographs). The strip clubs that market women visited as things to consume, from the many food-themed names to an advertisement that read “Thousands of beautiful girls and three ugly ones.”
For his next project, Prost plans to visit Japan to document the nation’s love hotels, which fill a similar role to strip clubs in some parts of the US: open secrets in a conservative society. But the photographer believes the American establishments he visited say something unique about the country — something that’s less about sexuality and more about the American dream.
What his project showed him is, he said, this: “As long as you’re successful in business, (it doesn’t matter) if your business deals with sex.”
“Gentlemen’s Club” will be exhibited at Agnes b. Galerie Boutique in Tokyo, Japan from March 17 to April 15, 2023. The bookpublished by Fisheye Editions, is available now.