I first saw Jean-Christian Bourcart's photos ten years ago in the home of my former dealer Gilles Dusein, in his little apartment on rue du Repos overlooking Père Lachaise. Gilles, whose ashes are now dispersed in the famous cemetery, had just begun to represent Jean-Christian and was extremely enthusiastic about his work. He had a large scroll-like c-print from this prostitution series, stuck up with pins. I was very excited by it: by the subject, close to my own heart and history, and by the palette of sexy reds and vivid blues. I felt an instant kinship with him though our actual photos are so different: here was someone with his own distinct style, not afraid to transgress all the rules of documentary photography, where his work could be compartmentalized but not contained.
Viewing his prints was like looking through a door into an underlit world where the stories are not explicated or overtly articulated, but remain secretive, left for the viewer to discern and to discover. It also seemed to contain a quality rare in contemporary photography: honesty.
Gilles Dusein was like few others in the contemporary art world then or now. He showed artists whose vision and sexual politics were akin to his, whose imagery enthused him regardless of whether they had attained any recognition. He had earned the money to open his gallery by starring as a can-can dancer at the Lido. He demonstrated incomparable generosity and loving support for his artists.
He told me how much I'd like Jean-Christian and promised to introduce us. When he did, we decided to trade work.
In Jean-Christian's photos, which are sometimes printed almost lifesize, he opens the door but a bit shyly, not intruding, as if hanging back in the doorway. The empty rooms are portraits in themselves, full of clues to the occupants' identities. They are touching, in the womens' almost pathetic attempts at creating an air of eroticism with their posters, their fake satin sheets covered with towels instead of blankets offering nowhere to hide, and their heart-shaped pillows. The Hawaiian room, the Elvis room, the heavily equipped S&M room, the Empire room with the gilt mirror and flocked wallpaper, the tropical room: they exude isolation and loneliness.
Stuffed animals piled on a couch suggest a girl barely out of childhood, striving for some emotional comfort. One man stares into a room romantically decorated with roses and fragile paper fans. As he sizes up the commodity, Jean-Christian captures something arrogant in his body language. The women are often strongly defined individuals, unlike the men. Only occasionally does JC reveal the men as vulnerable, as in a photo where the client is naked and the proud woman is fully dressed. In the true light of the place, the red underlit glow that pervades nearly all the pictures, it is impossible to see eyes, and rarer to see features but so much is revealed through the nuances of stances and postures in the girls' bodies.
Jean-Christian renders the spaces skillfully. The double views into side-by-side rooms show the actual lack of privacy in what is thought of as a world of private interaction. I love the photographs of the women laughing together, conferring with their little toy dogs, staring at the camera or chatting in their matching black bras and garters. He captures the women dressing after a trick or displaying themselves spread-eagled on their beds or sleeping, seemingly spent or waiting. With a woman washing her hair or another sewing, he shows the mundanity of life in the bordello. So much of the content of these photos is about the waiting, as much a part of the job as the actual sex acts.
Jean-Christian renders the spaces skillfully. The double views into side-by-side rooms show the actual lack of privacy in what is thought of as a world of private interaction. They retain the values of chance and of risk, of going into the world where one's vision is expanded by what one experiences. They also differ from those of most other male documentary photographers, whose pictures of prostitutes-some exotic species brightly, falsely lit and exposed- seem to show no understanding of the harsh reality of their work. In their haunting sense of loneliness, these pictures maintain humanity and fragility. Jean-Christian never represents these women as alluring or even especially erotic, but as touching and also trapped: working a hard job in a difficult environment.
In a sense his position in these pictures is that of the "john," the trick, for whom the identities of the women he seeks to service his desires remain outside of his grasp.
It is the truest view available to him because it mirrors the experience of the other patrons.
Normally I don't like the concept of a hidden camera, but in this case the whole is greater than the parts in that he is not merely a voyeur, he puts himself in the same position as a participant. But these pictures don't feel voyeuristic to me; a real voyeur would have kept the images for himself. He is willing to share what remains a mystery to him, never assuming he knows more than he does, showing true humility. The work comes from his heart and his compassion as the best photography does, and not from theory or marketing strategies.
Most of all, there is respect in the way he reveals these women while preserving the anonymity of their actual identities, even as he enters into their private world. Although Jean-Christian has gone on to complete other intensive series of work, mostly surreptitious and dealing with the public nature of sexual activity and the desperation that pervades it, this series from Frankfurt still remains among his strongest and deepest.
Each time I study these pictures I discover new masterpieces, like the one of the woman lit only by a blue lamp and surrounded by darkness, that looks like a still from Michael Powell's brilliant film Peeping Tom, or the very moving picture of the woman with the heavy, Rubenesque body, whose flesh offers comfort although she's seemingly crying.
The book ends with a series of cropped portraits that emphasize the dignity of the women and feels like photography from the past: neon versions of Bellocq or some other picture from the end of the nineteenth century that was never taken. The fabulous final image is so simple, so classical, that it's somehow deeply familiar and perfect. She is the whore as a contemporary Mona Lisa: enigmatic, mysterious, and representing all women.
Nan Goldin, Paris April 2002