Ken Kobré on the Lusty Lady series
The first time I met Cammie Toloui, she was taking notes in my photojournalism class.
She was hard to miss.
One side of her head was shaved and her remaining, bleached hair was in dreadlocks. As I lectured along about covering some topic like spot news or features, my mind was counting the number of earrings Cammie was wearing. I added up at least eight holes in each ear, with more than one earring per opening. She wore all black, down to her combat boots. Across her waist she wore a belt of bullets. The only hint of color or femininity was the small pink clip she wore in her dreads. Cammie didn't look like any photojournalist I knew or had ever taught.
I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when she started to shoot her class assignments. Her news and feature pictures showed a sophisticated flare. From her punk outfit, I would not have predicted her observant eye and careful technique. I later learned that she had been to art school for many years, and that her photography had not taken off in that environment.
One day, as I was taking the trolley home, Cammie shared a seat next to me. I asked her what she did for a living, expecting to hear that she worked in a music shop or some other job that would fit her clothes and hairstyle. To my question about employment, she answered, "Oh, I'm a stripper at the Lusty Lady."
Without thinking, I blurted out, "With that hair?" (A comment I would never utter under normal circumstances).
She replied demurely, "Well, when I'm working, I wear a wig ." Nonplused, I didn't know what else to say.
Cammie turned out to take excellent photojournalistic pictures. When she enrolled in a second class about the photo story, the group's first assignment was to document their own lifestyles.
Several weeks into the course Cammie came into my office to show me some contact sheets. Each sheet contained 36 tiny images, so I began to study each picture with a 'loupe' that magnifies the images beneath it.
The first picture I saw was taken across a nude woman's pubic area and through her open legs. Inside the unusual framing, a man was wearing a silly tee shirt, pants dropped, masturbating. It took me a second, but I finally realized that the nude body parts in the picture were those of Cammie, who was standing next to me at the moment.
Cammie explained that one of the jobs she did as a stripper at the Lusty Lady was to sit in a glass box. The glass box was a private booth closed off by a curtain. A man would stand in the private booth but was separated from Cammie by a glass wall.
I had seen ads for this service before in the newspaper and on billboards in front of the Lusty Lady. "Talk to a live nude girl," the signs said. But I had no idea what went on in private when the men "talked" to a nude girl.
Cammie had photographed her life from her perspective as the nude woman men talk to. The men may, indeed, talk to the nude women, but many of them simultaneously masturbate. Frame after frame showed men with their pants around their ankles, still wearing tee shirts, or policemen's jackets or ties and coats -- all stimulating themselves.
I had never seen pictures like this. Male photographers who take pictures of the sex industry take pictures of scantily clad or nude women strutting their stuff in Las Vegas or in Bangkok. Cammie's pictures turned the camera around. She recorded the scene from a woman's perspective.
At first, I didn't know what to say. Then I asked the obvious question, "How did you get these men to let you take their pictures?" Clearly, they could see that Cammie had a camera.
"Well, I told them that if they would let me take their photograph, I would give them a free dildo show."
So there you have it. For a free show, these men allowed themselves to be photographed while masturbating. A single picture alone would be amazing, but Cammie went further. She tried to find an interesting, artistic way to photograph what she was experiencing.
Not only did she record the men's behavior, but she included herself in the images by framing through her legs. In later pictures she included the clock that times the men's length of stay in the booth. She also experimented with putting a mirror directed at herself so that the final picture captures the customer and also what body parts he sees.
After looking over the contacts, I turned to Cammie and asked, "Do you feel comfortable showing these pictures in class?"
"No problem," she replied.
The next day 20 students stood in the classroom ready for the critique. The first student put her pictures on the wall. She made a living walking dogs. The class made a few suggestions. The next student to put up pictures that showed his life in a punk band. Again the class commented about the quality of the images, their framing and the student's ability to catch a moment.
Then, Cammie offered to put up her pictures. A silence fell over the class as she tacked each 8x10 to the wall. Here were the most shocking pictures a lot of students had ever seen. Men masturbating. But even more disquieting was that fact that you could also see Cammie's nude body parts in many of the pictures while Cammie was standing in the room appearing completely at ease.
Everyone waited for me to say something. They were stunned by the pictures but equally anxious to see how I, as the teacher, would respond.
To this day, I cannot remember what I said... something innocuous about the grain, I suspect, but I do remember that after Cammie showed her Lusty Lady photos, no student wanted to follow with any of their own personal documents.
Cammie's pictures have gone from the walls of San Francisco State University's classroom to the galleries of New York. Her work was featured in a show called Bad Girls at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Camerawork Gallery in San Francisco. Along with a portrait of her, Cammie's work was written up in Elle magazine. Her stripper photos, taken at the Lusty Lady, constituted part of her entry into the Eddie Adams workshop, where she won the New York Times award for excellence in photojournalism. The Lusty Lady photographs, along with the rest of her portfolio, helped her win the Greg Robinson scholarship to finish her studies at San Francisco State University in the photojournalism department.
Today, Cammie continues to photograph, though mostly just cute pictures of her son, and says that lately she is more likely to read Mothering magazine than Maximum Rocknroll.
-- Professor Ken Kobre, 1998