‘5 Dollars for 3 Minutes’ is a photography series by Cammie Toloui. It was shot at the Lusty Lady Theater in the North Beach district of San Francisco in the early-1990s. Opening in the 1970s, the iconic strip club originally showcased 16mm films for the emerging pornography market.
As demand increased in the 1980s, they added live nude dancers in a peep show – customers would sit in a booth, feed money into a slot and a screen would rise revealing the dancer behind some glass – a sex work format which is now defunct.
Many of the intimate pictures (click here to see them) display consenting male customers in vulnerable positions. Men are rarely depicted that way, society’s norms and values seem to forbid it.
The full collection of photographs has been shown at the Tate Modern in London, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and Camerawork Gallery in San Francisco. Now they are being published in a book which you can purchase here.
I spoke to Cammie to ask her how the project came about, what she learned about human sexuality, the male ego, and herself.
Klub Verboten: How did you come to work at the Lusty Lady?
Cammie Toloui: It was the early 90s and I was getting my degree in photojournalism. I was this punk girl; I’d already gone through the whole Yeastie Girlz thing [a feminist punk band that Cammie was in during the 1980s] and I was seeking out extremes with photojournalism and just generally in life.
A lot of my friends had become strippers at the Lusty Lady, and I really needed the money to get through university because I was in the photography department and it was expensive––there was film and paper that we had to pay for. Also, I was living in a house in San Francisco with a bunch of people, which wasn't cheap. It was the obvious choice for me, I was always seeking out the edge of things.
What type of punters came in?
You'd get different customers; during the day it was businessmen on their lunch hour and maybe the occasional tourist. And then at night, you’d get the people out partying and couples on a date. That part of San Francisco had a lot of nightclubs and other strip clubs.
Was it common for people to be on a date or with their partner?
Not as common as we would have liked, because that was always way more interesting to us dancers than just the usual wanking guys. Anytime a woman would come in we’d crowd around the window. It was different and more interesting somehow.
You’ve described it as a ‘feminist strip club’…
Well, I use that word loosely because it's all relative. This club was run by women. That's actually a really big deal because in other clubs you had to deal with managers, strip club owners who were misogynist or would try and take advantage. That was one thing we didn't have to deal with. There, the women's safety was a very important element. If you called yourself a feminist, that would be the place that you go to be a stripper.
Do you remember the first time that you took the camera in to the club?
I had already been working there for about a year and going through my photojournalism degree at San Francisco State University. A new semester came along and the professor said: “Okay, this week’s assignment, you need to go and photograph your life, everything you do, I want to see a document of what your week is like, what your life is like. And that's when I thought, ‘Oh, shit. How the hell am I going to do this?’ A friend of mine said he’d come in and stand on the other side of the window, so I could just get a photograph of the scene, you know, I thought that was the only way that I could possibly do it.
He didn't show up! And I'm grateful, because what it meant was that I was forced to ask a customer. And I had [the camera] sort of tucked away behind the pillow. This customer came in, and I had to just be brave. And actually, as far as training to be a journalist goes, this was the best. You know, you have to be brave to ask people to take pictures in difficult situations, and this was the ultimate.
I said to him, “I'm a student at university. And I need to take a picture. If you let me take your picture, I'll give you a free dildo show in exchange.” To me that seemed fair, because that was like a $10 value. This guy was beyond excited about it and consented, he did all kinds of poses. And what was so amazing was that he came back the next week and asked if I would take pictures again. It was like this amazing realisation for me; I was like, ‘wow, you know what, you never fucking know until you ask.’ It was a huge lesson for me as a journalist.
What did you learn about human sexuality from this project?
I learned a lot about men and the male ego. And I learned that for all the posturing, men are really vulnerable, especially in that scenario, you know, where they got their dick out. A lot of times it was just one on one. I mean, we were separated by glass, but itwas very intimate.
A lot of the customers would come in as a kind of therapy. They’d say, “My wife doesn't understand my interest in wearing lingerie” or “she doesn't like it when I want to look at her feet”. Whatever fetish it was, they needed to talk about it to work through, you know. It was like the one time that these men could really be free.
Did customers ever come across themselves in a gallery?
Only once. One night this couple came in. The woman had a two-year-old child, but she was still breastfeeding. She was in there with her boyfriend. They were both also artists, so when I told them what I was doing with the taking pictures they just thought it was so cool.
They were really game to play along. She took out her tits and started squirting milk on the window. And they just were playing and laughing. And it was the best photoshoot, so much fun. They were so into it. They're the only customers that I ever exchanged phone numbers with, they stayed in touch.
Fast forward to 2010 and I was in a really big show at the Tate Modern. Then it travelled to San Francisco Museum of Art. Anyway, that two-year-old girl who the milk belonged to was then in art school. And they had a field trip to go and see this show. She was in her early 20s and she's there with her class walking through it. She comes upon this image of this woman squirting milk that looks exactly like her. (She was like her mom.) And she realised that it was her mom.
What did you learn about yourself from this project?
I became a lot more extroverted from working there. I felt that Sisterhood of Lusty Ladies, that was really strong. I felt like I was part of this amazing sisterhood of women who supported each other. I have absolutely no regrets.
And now, obviously, there's going to be a book published, it took nearly 30 years to get a publisher to take it. And I tried, but most people I approached were too scared of a hard cock. That has always been so frustrating, because they're fine to show a naked [female] stripper. But to show the other side of the equation, to turn the camera to show where the money's coming from, the financial exchange, that is taboo.
We have female sexuality thrust upon us in society, but depictions of male vulnerability and sexuality remains taboo for most. What do you think that says about society’s norms and values?
It says a lot. It's fine to look at a woman and objectify a woman's body, that's always been okay. But somehow in a patriarchal society, to show a man being vulnerable is hugely taboo. I didn't really get that concept until a couple years ago; I was chatting with a guy named Michael Petry who runs a gallery in London. I sat down with him and said, “What is the deal? Why are people so afraid of a hard cock?” And he said, “Cammie, this is a patriarchal society. Nobody wants to see a man looking vulnerable.”