Jane Evelyn Atwood’s best photograph: Blondine, the outrageous Paris prostitute
Source:theguardian Author: Jenny Stevens Date: 2015-02-06 Size:
Thursday 5 February 2015 08.01 GMTShare on FacebookShare on TwitterShare via EmailShare on LinkedInShare on Google+I’d been living in Paris for about four years when I bought my first camera...


Detail of Blondine at the door, Rue des Lombards, Paris, 1976-1977 by Jane Evelyn Atwood. Click here to see the full image. Photograph: Jane Evelyn Atwood

Interview by Jenny Stevens

Thursday 5 February 2015 08.01 GMTShare on FacebookShare on TwitterShare via EmailShare on LinkedInShare on Google+I’d been living in Paris for about four years when I bought my first camera. I was young, naive, with little interest in photography, but I had seen these prostitutes on the street. Back then, in the 1970s, they were allowed to stand outside and solicit. They would wear incredible costumes, with heavy makeup and elaborate hairdos. They were, very beautiful. I was extremely curious and photographing them became a way of getting to know them.

I’d been to one exhibition in my life, Diane Arbus, and couldn’t get her photos out of my mind. I was so moved by the people she shot: not just the freaks – I don’t like that term – but the normal people in whom she saw something strange. I thought: “How am I going to find people like that?” So I started going to art openings, which were full of eccentrically dressed people. At one, I met a woman who said she knew a prostitute. When I asked to be introduced, she took me to the Rue des Lombards – and that’s where I met Blondine. I was very nervous, but the women were joking around and we went to a bar and had champagne. For me, that was the height of chic.

I wrote to Blondine, asking if I could come back and see her. She called me, I went down there and started taking shots. I knew about as much about photography as I did about prostitution – I actually learned how to take photos in that brothel. I ended up working there every night, all night, for a year. As I was photographing Blondine, other women became curious and asked if I would take their picture. Little by little, I got enough photographs of prostitutes to do my first book.

Blondine was 38 when this was taken. She’s standing in the corridor of the brothel, lit by just one naked lightbulb. You can make out other women on the stair. Men would come in, a price would be agreed, the women would do the guy and come back down. It was very low-class, very fast, over in 15 minutes. The brothel was for masochists: the women were paid astronomical sums to whip the guys or cut them or do whatever crazy things they wanted. I didn’t realise this until I started taking the photos. I’d be scared to death in the rooms but I always got the shot.

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Blondine had been brought up strictly by nuns in a convent, and had one desire when she got out – to be likeMarilyn Monroe, whose pictures she had seen. She thought the way to do that was to become a prostitute. In some very basic way, she believed Marilyn Monroe had become a prostitute for all of us.

She’s dancing here, probably drunk. She was a big drinker. It was 1976 and still too early for drugs or Aids. She was being very provocative. Every woman in that building had a pimp, except her. She was so outrageous, they couldn’t control her. The other women were jealous of her because of her independence and beauty, but she didn’t care. She would make scenes, yell and scream – and she had a big voice. One time, she actually pissed in the hallway, just out of defiance. The other women were saying: “Don’t do that, it’s humiliating.” And she said: “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want.”

A couple of times, she got angry and sent me away, threatening me. But she was drunk and I always went back. She loved me and knew I loved her. She was very maternal with me. She went on to become a heroin addict, at one point snorting about €400 worth a day, though thank God she never used needles. Dealers would target prostitutes because they had a lot of cash on them. I thought I was going to lose her, but she got off heroin all on her own. She was strong. Crazy but strong. Even when the book was finished we remained friends, up until her death a few years ago.

While I was doing the nightshift with Blondine, working 8pm till dawn, I was also doing a printing and developing course. When I started coming in with photos of prostitutes, a young Frenchman said: “This is so amazing, I’ve never seen anyone get this close.” He was an intern at the Magnum agency and put me in touch with a famous American photojournalist called Leonard Freed. He became my mentor, harshly criticising my photos and showing me how to edit. It was him who talked me into going into the rooms with prostitutes and clients, telling me I needed to get signed releases. He was my school of photography.

I love this photograph because Blondine is so joyful and spontaneous, so beautiful with the light shining on her. Although she had the blonde hair and the fur coats, I never thought she resembled Marilyn Monroe. But she does look like a movie star.

CV

Born: New York, 1947.

Education: No formal training, mentored by US photojournalist Leonard Freed.

Influences: Diane Arbus.

High point: “My books. I’ve done 10 now.”

Low point: “I wish I’d taken more photos. There were times when I was a bit lazy or too tired and I didn’t go out.”

Top tip: “You have to have something to say.”

[Editor] 林慧

    Artintern