Words and Photos by Marc McAndrews
I had been spending quite a bit of time alternating between a crowded apartment in NY and traveling around the country, living in various vans and working on personal projects. During one of these trips I was staying at a motel in Lovelock, Nevada. A few doors down from mine at the motel was a couple who was returning from a motorcycle rally in Surges, South Dakota.
We started talking, and their friends showed up and I ended up spending the weekend with them. At some point during the weekend, one of the women asked if I had ever been to a brothel before. The idea stuck with me and I went back to NY, where I pitched the idea to my agent at the time and different magazines I was working with. Nevada is the only state in the U.S. where prostitution is legal, so the following spring I hopped in my van and drove back out to Nevada to try to get access to photograph inside.
I spent five years traveling back and forth between New York and Nevada. It took me the full five years to gain access and to photograph in every one of the brothels I shot. I photographed all 33 of the legal brothels that were opened at various points, and I lived in about 23 of them. There are 28 operating brothels in Nevada today.
Getting access to my first brothel was very difficult. The first brothel I approached was the Bunny Ranch in Carson City. To bring it full circle, it was also the last brothel I photographed and the one I spent the most time at. Dennis Hof is pretty protective of the business that he’s built and the women that work for him, so when I first showed up at the Bunny Ranch I was pretty much dismissed by the managers. In retrospect, I’m sure they assumed I was either someone who wanted to party but was too afraid to admit it -— that I had some fantasy about being a photographer seduced by a prostitute and concocted a story about it -— or that I really did want to take pictures but on more of an “undercover money-making adventure” kind of angle. Either way, I wasn’t getting access under those circumstances.
I approached a number of other brothels, but had no luck until I ended up at Mona’s Ranch in Elko, where I finally got permission to photograph. I not only got permission to photograph there, but they also suggested I take one of the empty work rooms and stay there as long as I needed, which ended up being five days. Once I got access to that first brothel, a bit of a snowball effect took place. I had photographs to show people, so they knew what I was doing, and then there was word-of-mouth that started to spread about the project. I would work with the women, showing them Polaroids and talking with them about their portrait. It was like a collaboration between the women and myself.
I think the fact that I was able to live in a lot of the houses helped to re-enforce the different dynamic that I had with the women. I wasn’t a customer and I wasn’t an employee, but I also wasn’t an outsider. I always joke that it’s one thing to get an assignment and go and photograph someone for a few hours or a day, but it’s a whole different thing once you’re asking them to pass the milk and cereal at the breakfast table in the morning.
This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 52. Read more stories from the issue here.