The best documentary photography happens when skill and vision meet preparation and luck. For Joanne Chan, the formula was a little different.
“I started taking my pictures when I went to pick up my roommate after work. She was working at a place called Honeybuns, and it was an all-nude dance club,” Chan recalled. “My roommate said ‘Oh, I think you should take pictures,’ so I took some pictures and then I made some workprints and presented them in my class, and during the critique my professor said ‘I think you should take more pictures like this.’”
So she did. That was in 1990, and Chan devoted handfuls of nights over the next six years to shooting photos inside the dressings rooms of some of New York City’s adult entertainment clubs. An exhibition of that work, titled “New York By Night,” is on view through March at Revolve, in Asheville’s RAMP Studios.
“It was like walking down in a rabbit hole, It was dark, gritty and very cinematic, and I was fascinated,” Chan said of shooting inside those nightclubs.
“As soon as I took out my camera, I was accepted, and I was accepted really openly,” she said. “I don’t think I look threatening, that’s one thing, and I think (the women) have something to share.”:
Chan is a native of Hong Kong who, at age 11, moved with her mother to Queens, N.Y. She was enrolled in a basic photography course at Cooper Union College when she began shooting these photos. At the time, she didn’t them as particularly special.
“I was still searching for myself and trying to find a reason to fulfill my assignments,” Chan said. “At that time, I didn’t think they were anything special because I just looked around everywhere. New York was a little grittier than now and it was just my environment.”
Chan’s photos show the women relaxed in various states of undress, often seemingly unaware or uncaring of Chan’s presence.
“Definitely, they weren’t shy about posing,” Chan said. “Nowadays, people like to take selfies, so they were taking selfies, but I was the camera.”
Chan never exhibited this body outside contributions to a couple of group exhibitions in New York. Instead, Chan gravitated toward commercial and freelance photography. Over the years, she shot portraits for Guitar World and Vibe magazines and, for a number of years, took assignments from the New York Times. Often, she didn’t recognize the celebrities at the other end of her lens.
“I had to make a living and, a lot of times, I didn’t know why they were because I was a little sheltered,” Chan said. “I was just trying to do any kind of work. I didn’t turn down any jobs.”
Chan and her husband, the printmaker Rocky Kenworthy, and their daughter moved to Asheville eight years ago at Kenworthy’s suggestion. While Chan continued selling her photography to stock services, the move inspired a new creative direction, into crafts and also painting what she calls “depressing landscapes.” She hasn’t taken photos in more than four years.
“I didn’t have the personality to be a go-getter,” she said. “I make hats and purses, something that’s really low stress, which suits what I’m evolving to.”
As for the women in the photos Chan took a quarter-century ago, she still keeps in touch with one through Facebook.
“I know she got a master’s degree from NYU and she’s doing well,” she said. “I think about what their lives are now, about how I evolved and they probably evolved, too.”