New York hurly-Burly

Sarah Howe
Sarah Howe
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“I LIKE to think I’m an open-minded person,” says Sarah Howe. “I don’t get shocked by much but these girls are leading very unusual lives. It was... an eye-opening couple of weeks.”

You would expect, it’s perhaps safe to say, nothing less.

For those girls she refers to are New York’s finest burlesque dancers, and Sarah, a 23-year-old photographer from Meersbrook, was in the city that never sleeps to shoot them.

That eye-opening behaviour we’ll get to shortly.

For now, the assignment – a self-commission after a scholarship with the Young Photographers Alliance led her to the US – has resulted in the former Newfield Secondary School pupil’s first ever London exhibition and limited edition book.

And like burlesque itself – an art form popular with interwar dance, drama and titillation aficionados long before Dita Von Teese ever stepped out of a martini glass – it’s attracting a curious audience.

“The reaction has been great,” says Sarah, who lived in Stanley Road, Meersbrook, and Matthews Fold, Norton, before heading to the capital’s University of Westminster four years ago. “People have seemed to really take to the pictures, and to be showing in London is really exciting.”

Not a bad result for a project which came about almost by accident.

Sarah, who also attended Longley Park Sixth Form College, was in New York after pictures she took for the Young Photography Alliance were featured in an exhibition there.

On the first night a friend suggested they go to a male burlesque show.

“It’s not the sort of place I’d usually go,” says. “But it was something to do. We got talking to one of the guys who was involved with the whole scene and hit it off. We ended up spending the entire holiday sleeping at his flat.”

He in turn introduced Sarah to some of the city’s burlesque dancers and she asked to picture them.

“The idea was to take 12 in 12 days at their homes to try and contrast that stage-persona with the people who they really are,” says Sarah. “I wanted to shoot them in their own environment to deconstruct that alter-ego.”

The girls were happy to do it, showing off personal collections of books, art and, um, mounted animal heads – although the unusual wall mounting wasn’t the only example of their unusual characters.

We’re back to that eye-opening behaviour...

“There was one girl,” says Sarah, who is currently living in Bow and working as a photographer’s assistant, “who went on stage dressed as a huge lamb which she slowly stripped off to reveal herself dressed as a wolf underneath – and people loved it. It was surreal.

“But what I found surprising is how self-conscious they would be out of costume. They were so different. I went to one girl’s house and she was so sophisticated and glamorous but while we did the shoot she had Austin Powers on the TV. It was a strange contrast.”

The exhibition, Private Lives, opened yesterday at The Foundry Gallery, in Chelsea and runs until May 11. A broadsheet-style newspaper book is available free by contacting Sarah through her website www.sarahhowephotography.co.uk