Jane Hilton , Trust No Man, 2012, one of the images from Nevada. C-type Hand Print, edition of 7.8 x 6.5 inc, Image courtesy of Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York
NEW YORK— In 2013, Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York presented an exhibition of photographs by Jane Hilton. Titled Precious, the photography show featured fourteen large color photographs from Jane Hilton’s project documenting working girls in assorted Nevada brothels, the only state in the United States to have legalized prostitution. The nude portraits of the working girls, who are of different cultural backgrounds and a variety of age groups, are intimate, touching and revealing.
To create the images, Hilton visited eleven Nevada brothels, including Madam Kitty’s Cathouse and Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Armed with a large format 5×4 plate camera, Hilton slowly and patiently photographed the women in their environment. The long process of photographing them gave Hilton the opportunity to bond and build a relationship with the working girls, who came to trust her. That atmosphere of friendship and trust is evident in many of the images that eulogize the girls’ innermost thoughts.
The photographs of the working girls in the Nevada brothels featured in Precious at the Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York are the result of Hilton’s second visit to the Nevada brothels. The first time she was there was in 2000 when she was commissioned to make a ten-part documentary for the BBC in Madam Kitty’s and the Moonlight Bunny Ranch. As Hilton, a documentary filmmaker finished that film project, she was deeply touched by the experiences of the girls and knew she must return to the subject of sex trade again as a way of bringing deeper context to the lives of the girls involved. So, in 2010, Hilton returned to the Nevada brothels to create a series of intimate portraits of the women she encountered in her journey examining the Nevada sex trade.
Physically and emotionally, the women are laid bare, revealing the most intimate details concealed behind glowing skins and forced personas. Setting up and photographing the working girls in the private rooms used for selling sex, the images capture them in their most vulnerable moments, accentuating their physical insecurities. While some are fat, others are thin, tall and short. Age and level of beauty are also some of the issues to contend with from these images. Although some of the women are old, others are young, sexy and unique.
The variant ages, beauty and physical structure of the working girls deconstruct the misconception that many hold about women who sell sex for a living. The disparity also highlights the complexities of the lives of these women who sell their body for money. Inherent within those complexities, however, is power. In many of the images, it is clear that these are strong, confident women with great pride. In some of the photographs, the women proudly showed off their body, unperturbed about the perception, judgment and how they will be rated in terms of beauty. While some have tattoos to show their affinity to individuals and groups, others have kept their body untainted, leaving the viewer in limbo about their identity.
Soon after some of Hilton’s images of the girl working in the Nevada brothels were presented at the Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York, a book with the same title was also published by Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam. In addition to the images are thought-provoking stories about the women that bring to the fore their humanity and strong personality. Some of the stories are absolutely touching, and expose the deepest emotions of the working girls. While some are sad about their incursion into the sex trade, others are defiant, mischievous, defiant and in some instances, aloof.
The visit was an eye-opener for Hilton who had no idea of what life was like in Nevada brothels and the women who were engaged in the sex trade. She notes: ‘I hadn’t even thought about prostitution until I walked into a brothel. I was probably very naive, which actually in retrospect did me a favor. I am by nature very non-judgmental and feel it very important to have experience of a subject matter before making any points of view about it. From all the discussion, the pain and the complicated lives of the girls are most enlightening.’
Hilton’s non-judgmental nature and naiveté helped her fulfill her purpose to the contextualizing the lives of the girls involved in the sex trade. Looking at the images and the stories in the 104-page book, it is clear why Hilton chose the word Precious. Living and participating in the lives of these women evidently had some impact on her as she directly experienced their unique value. A sense of affinity, sympathy, and tenderness leap off the pages as one is led into the intimate lives of Kitty, Veronica Von Teaze or Sultry Jacklyn, who are just a few of the girls of the brothels of Nevada who engage in the sex trade. The understanding of the societal perception of their professions is very clear in all their discussions, and they are aware that although prostitution is one of the oldest professions that have been made legal in Nevada, it is still not socially acceptable.