Life & Culture

Peep Show: Surreptitious Photos of an Illegal Sex Club

In 1993, documentary photographer Merry Alpern stumbled across a room offering view into the bathroom window of an illegal sex club – a discovery that led to her series Dirty Windows, now on display in Paris

Back in 1993, when the first World Trade Center bombing occurred, New Yorkers shook it off and went about their business undeterred. For more than two decades, the city had become a den of iniquity where crime and corruption took root at every turn – as documentary photographer Merry Alpern would soon learn.

Alpern had a friend who threw parties on Pearl Street, in the heart of the financial district. One night, he took her to the back room of his loft to show Alpern the view into the bathroom window of an illegal sex club.

“There was a woman standing there naked wearing a harness. I wondered, ‘What is this?’ I wanted to be there every night. I decided to stake it out,” Alpern says on the phone from her Brooklyn home.

“It was like a silent movie with recurring characters. It was always surreal and dreamlike – especially because I had to sit there for hours, staring into a little glowing window, waiting for something to happen. The adrenalin would be pumping so hard when two people came in that room. It was such a thrill!”

Using the windows as a framing device to heighten the intensity of her gaze, Alpern went in search of the perfect photograph, indulging her passion for voyeurism with an unexpected sense of wistfulness.

“At that time I was single and that a relationship was never in my future, and I was feeling sad about that,” she recalls. “I wondered, ‘Why was I sitting alone in the dark room watching these people have these encounters?’”

At the same time, the act of peeping was making Alpern paranoid. “I was very cautious. People in there were dealing drugs. I could recognise the owner and the manager. I had a fear that they would look up and see me looking through a 300mm lens,” she says.

“I developed a fear of being caught. While climbing the stairs to the loft, I would pass these guys on the stairs going to the place. They would make jokes like, ‘Are you going to be dancing tonight?’ I’d duck my head, smile, and keep walking with my camera bag.”

The series, Dirty Windows, became a sensation unto itself when, in 1994, Alpern, along with co-candidates Andres Serrano, and Barbara DeGenevieve, was awarded an NEA grant that was immediately rescinded. The scandal proved to be serendipitous for Alpern, catapulting Dirty Windows to heights she could never have imagined. The work, now on view at Galerie Miranda, in Paris, has become increasingly prescient with the passage of time.

“It was very innocent. I never felt like I was doing anything to hurt anyone or expose anyone or incriminate anyone. I have sympathy for the women who were working there. I could read the room as a man couldn’t,” Alpern reveals.

“There was a power play that I think is still pervasive in the areas of class, race, and gender. The men clearly had the money. They were wearing suits and women were wearing harnesses. That’s the manifestation of the daily of exercise of power that goes on to this day.”

Merry Alpern: Dirty Windows is at Galerie Miranda, Paris, until April 20, 2019.