This spring, French photographer François Prost took a road trip across America. Instead of seeing national parks or exploring major cities, Prost strayed far from the typical tourist’s path, and trained his camera instead on the exteriors of strip clubs from Miami to Los Angeles.
The resulting series, “Gentlemen’s Club,” is also a portrait of American culture and urbanism. Shot from medium distance, the 193 photos highlight the stark geometry of American roadside architecture, as well as prevailing views on gender and sexuality. “It is a way to study and to try to understand this country,” Prost said of the series in an email.
Prost’s choice to focus on the southern portion of the country was both aesthetic and philosophical. Bright sunlight makes for strong color contrasts, and Prost was intrigued by the seeming incongruity of the region’s “conservative and puritan reputation” and the preponderance of these establishments. His route traced many of the nation’s strip-club capitals: Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.
There were a few regional differences along the way, some of which can be seen in the photos. While blue skies are nearly ubiquitous, other background features turn from lush greens to dull browns as the series progresses across the country. In some photos, skyscrapers are visible in the distance. Prost encountered a number of strip clubs along the Gulf Coast that were still in ruins following recent and not-so-recent hurricanes. He found run-down establishments in Panama City, Florida, devastated by Hurricane Michael in 2018, as well as in New Orleans—long-lasting relics from Katrina.
On the same trip, Prost also decided to photograph gun shops. “I told myself that it would be interesting to also bring back a collection of facades of shops that one finds nowhere else in the world,” he said. He was struck by how normalized these were, standing right next to drug stores and supermarkets. While gun shops, like strip clubs, sometimes had regional characteristics, they were often distinguished by political, patriotic, or even religious messages.
The photos in “Gentlemen’s Club” are most striking in their placelessness. Strip clubs are fundamentally utilitarian structures, emblazoned with generic signifiers of sex and sensual pleasure designed to lure in would-be clients, Prost observed. “These places are trying make clients want to come in, and to do so they evoke a universe of ‘pleasure,’” he said—both sexual and otherwise.
Oftentimes this manifests in pink, red, or purple facades. Many logos and signs depict silhouettes of nude women, but others simply include palm trees, in an attempt to evoke a getaway destination. Some of the windowless facades employ garish decorations resembling “the things one might see in a theme park,” said Prost, including a monster truck, a neon martini glass, and classical columns.
Strip-club names also interested Prost. Some could be read with a sacrilegious connotation, with the frequent use of terms like “temptation” and “paradise.” Some names are only a bit suggestive, like “La Chatte,” “Lollipop’s,” “Mangos,” and “Oasis,” while others are perfectly straightforward about what’s going on inside: “Totally Nude,” “Zone d’Erotica,” “Dick’s,” and “Girl Collection.”
The series includes a few gay clubs and gay bookstores, which inspired Prost to think more deeply about the sexual politics of these establishments. “A heterosexual strip-tease club to some degree crystallizes male domination of women,” Prost said. “It’s interesting to consider the power relations in a gay club, which demonstrates that the dominant/dominated schema is not purely based on gender.”
In some cases, Prost took two photos of a club: one of its facade and another of its roadside sign. The most prominent signs were found in and around Las Vegas, a city made famous for its roadside architecture by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in their influential book Learning from Las Vegas. As the architect couple noted, super-sized signs are a form of communication aimed at drivers, meant to be read from long distances and at high speeds. Indeed, car infrastructure was another unifying theme on Prost’s trip.
“The immense parking lots and commercial areas seem like they were designed in the 1950s,” Prost said. “And these areas don’t seem like they’ve changed much in 50 years, except that they’ve grown significantly.”
Irena Raulinaitis contributed translation assistance.
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