Photobook reviews

Gentlemen’s Club by François Prost

2 September 2021

In the spring of 2019, François Prost set off on a road trip from Miami to Los Angeles. His mission: to visit strip clubs and photograph their façades during the day. His new book Gentlemen’s Club (Fisheye 2021) features 200+ images of strip club façades on his route across the United States.

While unsung and dismissed as lowbrow or part of the underbelly of society, strip clubs take on a specific architectural form and their façades have a particular aesthetic. Examining their façades during the day, when they have been stripped of their nighttime ornament of shadow and neon, allows us to reflect on their design in more sober terms. Indeed, it helps us think about these spaces in new light.

Having photographed French and Belgium nightclub exteriors in daylight for his book After Party (Headbangers 2018), Prost has already explored the theme of exposing nocturnal spaces in the daylight. But now, Prost probes deeper into the culture of nighttime entertainment by focusing his lens on the sex industry.

That said, there is no sex in the champagne room. And there certainly is no sex in Gentlemen’s Club. In fact, there are hardly any people at all. No eager patrons. No bouncers. No scantily clad dancers, but in the abstraction of silhouetted forms adorning façades and signage. The spaces we associate with hedonism are strangely devoid of human activity in Prost’s book.

Spread from François Prost’s “Gentlemen’s Club”Spread from François Prost’s “Gentlemen’s Club”

Kickstarter helped Gentlemen’s Club see the light of day. And It didn’t take long for Prost to meet (and eventually triple) his goal of €6,000. I was one of the 350-odd backers who helped fund a limited edition print-run of 1,000 books, and my copy arrived a few weeks ago.

What first strikes you about the book is its color. The powder pink faux leather cover, a caricature of both the flesh and the femininity that rules these spaces, encases the text. Even the edges are painted in the same pink hue. A sticker of a beachside strip joint clings to the cover and the spine boldly displays the title in a shallow deboss of lipstick red, with matching ribbon marker and end bands.

The color pink permeates the inside too. The text block, attached to the cover with pink endpapers printed with even pinker dollar bills, is composed of two types of paper: a pink newsprint for the front matter and a thicker, uncoated stock for the photography. The newsprint front matter is curious, for it is all but 16 pages — one signature — and brings to mind the Financial Times. Perhaps the Financial Times reference was calculated, a nod to the role of cash in the underworld.

But, in terms of the materials, the strength of the uncoated stock calls attention to the fragility and texture of the newsprint. The pairing was intentional. Prost said that he wanted the book to be a bit like a travel guide, with maps and the introduction set on “very thin paper as it is in some old travel guidebooks.”

After a brief preface by Valérie Timmermans and an introduction by Prost, we come upon an atypical table of contents: a map of Prost’s route across the United States. Eight states are numbered from east to west, each one corresponding to its own chapter: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Spread from François Prost’s “Gentlemen’s Club”Spread from François Prost’s “Gentlemen’s Club”

Each state or chapter begins with a detailed map of the route with the locations of each club. Apart from the occasional photographic “spread,” most of the photographs appear stacked, 2-up per page and in a format that has come to dominate the era: the 1:1 Instagram square. There are no more essays or substantial textual elements after the photography begins.

Though, in a book with so little text, it is disappointing to see so many typographical errors. I’d give Prost a pass — he’s a French photographer after all, and many of the typos like “Georgie” instead of Georgia, “Mississipi” instead of Mississippi, “Louiiana” instead of Louisiana, and “Gainesland” instead of Gainesville are somehow endearing — but someone (his publisher, ultimately?) must take the blame. A copyeditor should have caught these mistakes, which also include the occasional formatting error and inconsistency (the uncapitalized “orlando” is one of the most obvious issues).

To be fair, the typos are few in this photo-heavy book. And many books have errors like these. Yet the scarcity of words commands our attention to them, and the typos are rendered more perplexing considering the attention given to the book’s overall design.

Spread from François Prost’s “Gentlemen’s Club”

Still, the book isn’t meant to be read in the traditional sense. It is a photo book after all. And it is meant to be looked at and examined.

The design of the book, by Prost and collaborator Jefferson Paganel, is well-intentioned and aspires to be much more than a campy book of strip-club kitsch. Sure, they have fun with the design — the pink, the flesh, the spreads — but the core of the text — the 200-plus pages of images — takes on a serious, anthropological tone.

I wonder how many of these strip clubs have closed down due to the pandemic. I’d bet quite a few. And in this case, Prost’s work becomes an archival record of sorts, and artifact of a particular time and place, of a particular aesthetic, and of a particular industry that is often stigmatized and ignored. In Prost’s work, the stigma is stripped away. As is the sentimentality. This is us, it says. Like it or leave it.

Like the façade of a real strip club, the book’s container does beckon you to take a look inside. It invites you in to linger and observe. Ultimately, however, the book’s thoughtful design is challenged by the typos, situating it somewhere between a dive bar and club privé. Nonetheless, once you’re inside Gentlemen’s Club (as in a real one), your attention invariably focuses on other things.

Spread from François Prost’s “Gentlemen’s Club”

About François Prost’s Gentlemen’s Club