With all the negative connotations of ‘strip joints’ French photographer Cyril Bailleul manages to bring something integrally human to his photographic project on the renowned Clermont Lounge in Atlanta. In his warm and extremely personal images we go beyond our preconceived ideas of ‘strippers’ and we see real characters, real humans-people who Cyril Bailleul now calls “friends”.
Shot using the natural light available to him in the lounge, Cyril Bailleul’s work is atmospheric, raw and palpably powerful. The Clermont Lounge in the process of the project evidently comes alive and its history awash with figures (reputedly) like Al Capone makes the now refurbished venue pulse.
HUMANISM CULTIVATES AN INNER MOTIVATION
I started taking photos in high school, we were a group of friends who liked to practice black and white photography -both shooting and developing. I was passionate about French humanist photographers of the 30s: Willy Ronis, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau– from street pictures to black and white portraits. So, I started a series of portraits of artists in their studios which resulted in an exhibition at the National House of Artists. I had, by chance, a visit from Willy Ronis and I was overjoyed when I discovered he had written a note in the guestbook for my first exhibition: ‘You have an eye’. At 20, it really motivated me to continue.
From there, there was a succession of meetings that subconsciously oriented my life as a photographer. The magic of photography to be able to move from one world to another, it’s almost as if photography is but a mere excuse to live new experiences and to take a look inside.
“If you differ from me my brother, far from injuring me, you enrich me”-in French it is, “si tu diffères de moi mon frère, loin de me léser, tu m’enrichis”). Is it a coincidence that I found myself working with UNESCO? It opened my mind to the many beautiful cultures of the world. Through UNESCO, I completed assignments and portraits in Paris and abroad; children of the favelas in Brazil, to villages of weavers in Bangladesh with Bibi Russell, a series of portraits of UNESCO Goodwill Ambassadors.
I also spent several years working for the royal family of Luxembourg, yet another world apart, complete with “Princes” and “Princesses” and round the world travel.
Following this, I worked as an official photographer in Paris: Kofi Annan for the UN, various heads of state and ministers. I enjoy the discrete behind the scenes view of “power”. I have also had the chance of once in a lifetime-meetings (reporting on assignment for different magazines) that really marked me as a person – notably photographing the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharamsala.
In 2000 the Portuguese Ministry of Culture, in collaboration with UNESCO, invited me to do a series of black and white portraits of Portuguese artists. The collection was purchased by the Ministry of Culture and these portraits have been exhibited in different museums and institutions and resulted in the publication of a book.
THE AMERICAN CONNECTION LEADS TO THE CLERMONT LOUNGE
My wife is American and for the last decade or so I have been to the United States quite often. Although she has never resided there, most of her family is in Atlanta, GA, thus my connection to the city.
I discovered the Clermont Lounge through my mother-in-law (yes, it’s quite funny that your mother-in-law sends you to a strip club). She is a big photography fan and, like me, appreciates the work of Diane Arbus. One day she told me that she had heard about Clermont Lounge and thought that it would be great to capture the place. It is not an exaggeration to say that everyone in Atlanta has at least heard of – if not visited – the Clermont Lounge. It is part of the heritage of the city.
So we phoned and explained to Kathi one of the two female owners that I was a French photographer and that I would like to have the opportunity to take portraits of the women there. To my surprise (because they have a notorious no photos policy) she gave her approval with the sole condition that I must ask permission individually of each woman.
One day towards sundown, I head to the Clermont Lounge. The club is located in the basement of a derelict brick hotel from the 1920’s where urban legend says thatAl Caponebooked the entire top floor during his stay in Atlanta. At that time, the hotel had been closed for several years, with the club still going strong down below.
MR DEE AND THE FALLING GUN
At the entrance, I explain to the bouncer, Mr. Dee, that I had come to take some pictures. I follow him inside and introduce myself. It was quiet at this time. he asks me to wait a minute while he moves a couple of tables. While he is doing this, his gun falls from his pocket at my feet-I started to second guess my being here – not to mention my mother-in-law’s motivations. I brush this off and take a drink at the bar. Indeed, the place does not seem to have changed since the 60’s.
The lounge originally opened in 1965, although it was already a strip club many years before under different names: The Anchorage in the 40’s, Gypsy Room 1952-1954, Continental Room, Atlanta’s Playboy Club in the 60’s and the Jungle Club. A large part of the club is taken up by a circular bar with the bartender inside and a tiny dance floor for the strippers. The bar itself is so patched up with black duct tape that it has become soft and comfortable.
On arriving, I had noticed the logo of the club printed on the wall outside, so I went out to take a picture. At that moment a taxi arrived, and its headlights illuminated the sign of the club, I was just about to take the picture when a woman comes out and throws herself in the light and starts posing. This was my first picture of Cassy. I explained my project to her and she was the first to pose inside the club (Boobs On Fire). She also helped me a lot by introducing me to the other girls.
THE POWER IN THE OLDER SEDUCTRESS
As usual, I went there the first time with the idea of just looking around and getting a feel for the place. But I really fell in love with the place and the atmosphere. Customers come from all backgrounds: all social strata and races, old and young, women and men, lesbians and gays; famous movie and music stars and yet everyone is treated the same, there is no VIP corner here.
Indeed, it is these women who make the place magical. Each has something that makes them unique and I immediately wanted to photograph them all. Some have been there for decades – Blondie, for example, has been working at the club for almost 40 years; while Poscha is more than 70 years old.
They are terribly sexy and I found that it was also a beautiful message to say that at 50, 60 or 70 years old a woman, not necessarily with the body of a supermodel-(although Blondie’s legs are incredible), you realise they have this power of seduction. Yes, it’s striptease but I think (and we should ask their opinion) that above all it is a game of seduction in which she (and her colleagues) are masters. They play with eroticism, the emotional excitement of men and women (because yes, there are many women who come to the Clermont Lounge) and all this in a very funny atmosphere.
ENDURING PHOTOGRAPHIC LOVE IN CHALLENGING LIGHT
I began photographing the ladies in 2014 and each time I came back, I always brought prints to offer the women I had photographed the last time. Nothing was planned in advance. I went there. I saw who was there (the women have no fixed schedule, they work when they want) and photographed the women who agreed. It could be the afternoon or during the evening. There was no set rule and sometimes it happened that they would say, “I want to take pictures now” even after refusing several times before.
What I enjoyed and what was also a challenge is the artificial lighting of the place. In fact, it is almost non-existent: simple neon, a jukebox, the screen of a laptop. So I used all the places of the club (except, by choice, the small stage of the bar): the dressing room, the ice machine room, the corridors and also a part of the abandoned hotel which one could access through a club exit. I really wanted to capture them as they are, with their shapes, their wrinkles, which for some could appear as defects … a beauty without post-production correction. But one of my main priorities, I also wanted them to like the photos. All this in a fun and David Lynch-like atmosphere.
40 DEGREES CREATES A FIRE ON THE ROOF
One afternoon day, in the middle of August (40 degrees C° with the characteristic humidity of the south) several of us decided to climb the stairs to the roof of the hotel. We had a good laugh and it gave rise to the photo: Fire On The Roof. I have much respect for these “princesses” and over the years, friendships have been created and trust built. It’s a bit of a family and I’m very proud to be part of it. We are in regular contact even when I’m not in Atlanta. This is a project that is not finished, and I go back every time I’m in town.
There are still women I dream of photographing. For different reasons, some do not wish to be photographed and while I respect their choices, I still hold out hope. I am working on a project for a book and, why not, other exhibitions.
BARBIE DOESN’T FIND KEN BUT SHE FINDS TRUST
I was really touched by some of the messages I received from the women after they saw their portraits. In the beginning, some did not want to be photographed; later they changed their minds and (in one case) found themselves on the poster of the exhibition in Paris. I sent them photos of the posters around Paris and of the exhibition and I think they were proud to be recognized for their work.
At the Atlanta exhibition, I created a large format version of Barbie’s photo (the one from the Paris poster) with a neon in suspension. When she saw the piece at the opening, she was speechless and had tears in her eyes. I was very touched and felt the affirmation that I had not betrayed their trust and the photographic work we did together.
There is now the magnificent Hotel Clermont above the club with Tiny Lou`s a Franco-American restaurant and a rooftop bar which will allow many to continue to live the magic of the place because the entire building is so full of history. In general, I fell in love with the southern US and I go back as often as possible whenever I have a little time. I now have several photo projects in progress and more and more I want to spend time on personal projects to document the “deep south”.