If Zagat did a guide to brothels, they might want to consider a consultation with photographer Marc McAndrews. After all, McAndrews spent five years photographing 33 of Nevada’s (legal) brothels for Nevada Rose: Inside the American Brothel (Umbrage Editions).
The spark for the project came to McAndrews in 2004 while he was working in Nevada. He was asked if he’d ever visited a brothel (he hadn’t), but he was intrigued and showed up unannounced at various brothels in hopes of gaining permission to photograph them.
“My initial motivation was curiosity,” McAndrews communicated via email about the project. “A beautiful thing about photography is the access it can afford you. It’s a reason to get into something, to get past the barriers that people put up.”
After initially being turned away from the famous Bunny Ranch, Kit Kat Guest Ranch, and Sagebrush Ranch, all in Mound House, a few miles outside of Carson City, Nev., he was advised by a patron in a local bar to try the brothels in the smaller town of Elko. There, he easily gained access to his first brothel, Mona’s Ranch.
“I had all these preconceived ideas running around my head about what they were like and what went on inside a desert brothel,” explained McAndrews.
At Mona’s, McAndrews was allowed to photograph freely during the day because it didn’t open until noon and rarely had daytime customers. He was allowed to approach the women directly to see if they’d allow him to photograph them, but there were rules.
“The women had final say if they wanted to sit for a portrait, and if they said ‘no’ that was that: no asking twice, no cajoling, no pressuring,” McAndrews explained.
With those rules in place, he was able to photograph up until a customer buzzed, he said. “If I was working in one of the more public spaces: bar, parlor, hallway, I’d have to break down whatever I was working on and stuff it into an empty room or closet so the customer wouldn’t be made uncomfortable by seeing a camera.”
Mona’s Ranch paved the way for McAndrews to gain access to most of the other brothels in Nevada. He was also encouraged by the reaction to his images.
“After I went out to the brothels for the first time I had such a positive response to the work back in New York that I decided to keep going back,” McAndrews said.
“At many of the houses, the women would approach me to be photographed before I even asked them. This occasionally led to misunderstandings while photographing them because many initially thought I was doing nude and sexier photographs for the websites. The regular employees were pretty open and accepting of being photographed. The customers were difficult because I’d usually only be able to approach regulars or men that the women knew well, so the pool of potential subjects was greatly reduced.”
Not until McAndrews had been working on the project for five years did he finally get permission to meet the owner of the Bunny Ranch, Dennis Hof.
The long-sought-after meeting took place in Hof’s office, which doubled as his bedroom. McAndrews arrived just in time to be in the room for a conference call Hof was on with Heidi Fleiss, Larry Flynt, and Ron Jeremy. McAndrews says, “Dennis gets off the phone, turns to me, and says ‘alright I don’t know why you’re here, I don’t want to work with you, but you have 5 minutes, tell me what ya got to say.’ I … have no idea what I said to him, but when I had exhausted every possible angle … he looks at me after an awkwardly long pause and says, ‘Alright, when do you want to take these pictures?’ ”
With all the preconceived ideas of brothels and the cast of characters who both work and frequent them, McAndrews felt he had to give a fair portrayal of them. “Everybody knows what goes on in the brothels.” McAndrews explains. “I approached the brothels the same way I would any other project or assignment, and when I photographed the women (or owners or customers, for that matter), I didn’t want to demonize them for what they did, but I was also careful not to glorify them. I think the fact that I became and remain friends with many of the women that work or have worked in the houses speaks to the honesty of the project.”