Craig Seymour's journey through male strip clubs could have a downbeat and depressing feel to it. Instead, he shows us the sweat, dollar bills, and butt cracks of young American men looking empowered and joyful.
Seymour is a Chicago-based writer-photographer. His photos have appeared in numerous national and international publications, including The Washington Post, France's Têtu Men, and Brazil's A Capa and Junior, among others. He has published many photo books of his work, including the book that the photos in this portfolio are sourced from: American Boys: A Strip Club Diary, which filmmaker John Waters called a “lovely smut collection.” In 2011 he was named an “emerging artist” by the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Craig is also the author of the memoir All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C. (Atria/Simon & Schuster), which tells the story of his time working as a stripper while in graduate school. Publishers Weekly said “readers will feel they’re in the hands of an expert.” (You can stream the audiobook for free on Soundcloud and Spotify.)
Craig is an associate professor of journalism at Northern Illinois University and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland at College Park. For more information see his website, CraigSeymour.com.
The Advocate: Everyone wants to see young, attractive guys dancing and stripping, but besides those obvious reasons, was there something in particular that attracted you to this as subject matter for photographs?
Craig Seymour: The first gay club I ever went to was a strip club. So I’ve always been fascinated by strip clubs because they were the first places where I felt safe to express my desire for other guys. My photography is an extension of that fascination.
When I started the American Boys project, I was strongly influenced by three photographers: Daidō Moriyama and his “are-bure-boke” (grainy, blurry, out-of focus) aesthetic; William Klein and his dynamic look at city life, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York; and Robert Frank and his study of U.S. culture in the ‘50s, The Americans. (The title, American Boys, is a nod to Frank, and the cover is a reference to his famous photo, Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955.) These influences helped me find a visual language for exploring a subject that I was passionate about.
Strippers and cameras seem like a combustible combination. How does holding a camera in a strip club change your experience as an onlooker?
I don’t think that taking photos at a strip club changes my experience as an onlooker. If anything, it’s an extension of the experience, and that’s exactly what I want it to be. I want my photographs to represent my subjective experience of the strip clubs.
I think it’s really crucial to document gay sexual spaces like strip clubs. These spaces are culturally important to our history as gay men. Yet, even today, they are extremely vulnerable to police persecution and moralistic laws and zoning ordinances. I want my photographs to stand as a visual document of these strip clubs at this moment in time, in the same way that Alvin Baltrop’s work shows us what it was like to live and love along the New York City piers in the ’70s and ’80s.
We don’t want to pry, but did you have the opportunity to be with the guys in a more personal way? If so, what stands out to you about the personalities of strip club dancers? Was there anything unexpected in your contact with them?
My dealings with various strippers over the years have involved all sorts of odd combinations of sex, romance, and friendship that are hard to describe because they fall so outside of the boundaries of how society generally defines “relationships.” One of the things I like best about the strip clubs is that they allow me to get to know a range of different guys that I probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet any other way. This is one of the factors that keeps me coming back. Some people like to spend their free time having brunch with friends; I like to hang out with barely legal “trade” at strip clubs. But as my friend, the late poet Essex Hemphill, once wrote, “Do not feel shame for how I live / I chose this tribe of warriors and outlaws.”