Photo Stroll – Jane Hilton’s Precious launched as a book and on show at Eleven Gallery London

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Phewwww. There has been a lot happening and finding the time to write blog posts has been difficult recently. Not least as I got a new six-month part-time contract as Editorial Content Manager and Project Developer for Frame and Reference  – an online visual arts magazine and resource for the South East, not including London. Please check the site out, sign up to the E-bulletin and twitter feed and give me feedback as I develop the site to make it a go-to resource for anyone interested in what’s happening in the visual arts. Plus, Hotshoe has been relaunched and the website redeveloped. This means there will be changes afoot with regards to this blog also as I want to maintain editorial control, develop some of the content further and keep the personal feel that I have tried to build over the last three years. More of this another day. For now, I want to share with you some photos taken at the opening of photographer and filmmaker Jane Hilton’s new show, Precious, a collection of nude portraits of Nevada working girls. The title is apt and describes Hilton’s feelings towards her subjects: “To me, they are all precious,” she says.

In 2010, Jane decided to return to the American West for her latest book, Precious, a collection of intimate nude portraits of working girls. Hilton visited eleven brothels to find women prepared to be photographed in the nude. She first came across Madam Kitty’s Cathouse (Nevada, USA) in 1998 and returned in 2000 to film ten documentary films here as well as at the Moonlite Bunnyranch (Nevada, USA). The women in the photographs work in brothels where she had already built strong connections as well as smaller places, such as Shady Lady’s and Angel’s Ladies. Using a plate camera, with its associated slowess, became a bonding experience for Hilton as she discovered how some of the women had “issues about their own body shape” and unraveled different feelings about their journey as a working girl. “In some cases this became a very positive and cathartic experience,” Hilton notes.

“I hadn’t even thought about prostitution until I walked into a brothel. I was probably very naive, which actually in retrospect did me a favour. I am by nature very non-judgemental, and feel it very important to have experience of a subject matter before making any points of view about it. For the last fifteen years I have spent a lot of time getting to know the working girls from the legal houses in Nevada, producing ten documentary films and an exhibition. I know there are some incredible women hidden in these brothels and I wanted to show this. So I decided to go back again to make a series of intimate portraits in eleven different brothels across Nevada.” Jane Hilton.

Unlike many other photographic bodies of work on prostitution where the women remain anonymous with no attempts made to find the humanity in their physicality, Precious names the women (first names only) and focuses on the women, their stories, their lives, their bodies and the places where they work. The worlds and the lived lives of these women are embedded in the portraits and animate the women, unlike (for me) other recent photographic projects on the subject.

For now, I’m thinking of how some projects and approaches (Joachim Schmid’s, LA Women; Mishka Henner’s, No Man’s Land, and Scott Southern’s, Lowlife can be seen to fuel anonymity and separate the women from the audience, the world in general and the photographer/visual artist. At times in these projects, the focus seems to be on the project idea, above all. Schmid publishes police released-photos from the collection of a serial killer of women, some of whom may or may not be prostitutes, while Henner takes a conceptual approach using Google images where the “street women” have pixelated faces – in both cases distance is reproduced again. I will pick up on this in more detail in a future post and add to the discussion the question of how easy, or difficult, it has been for Hilton to get the work seen because many of the portraits show women in the nude.

Prostitution is one of the oldest professions and, although it is legal in Nevada, it is still not socially acceptable. Precious, according to Hilton, aims to challenge “traditional ideas of beauty” through showing women from different cultural backgrounds, ages and body shapes, as well as to challenge “misconceptions” surrounding prostitution. Precious, however, draws the viewer in and reveals as much about the women’s lives as their bodies. In this series, the overriding impression is that Hilton really does care about her subjects; she has observed and listened to these women in ways that go beyond what they do to make a living.

The portraits are (as always with Hilton’s work) intimate and gentle portrayals of different women working as prostitutes in Nevada, as well as some landscape images and details from the brothels, which help provide a context for the portraits. The approach is sensitive and the aesthetic is familiar from Hilton’s previous work including her debut book, Dead Eagle Trail – Portraits of the American Cowboy. Look out for Chelsea, a former drug and sex addict who planned on a career in forensic science; Cassie, a bright and sunny optimist, who, as a young woman had to overcome the bleakest of pasts after witnessing her mother’s murder by a brutal stepfather, and who looks to a future where her ambition is to be a businesswoman and philanthropist. Then there’s Nikki, who, three months into her pregnancy, became a prostitute to save money for single motherhood; and Sonia, a married 52-year-old writer living in a brothel with her husband.

Precious is on show at Eleven Gallery, London and runs until 26 May. The hardback book is published by Schilt Publishing and is available for £35.

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