Vivienne Maricevic started taking photographs in the 1970s, and chronicled many aspects of New York that were hidden to the outside world, from gay male burlesque shows to live sex shows in Times Square theaters. In short, she persuaded people to do something that no one else had done; she gained access and documented what she saw with her camera.
Then when porn stars starting headlining at places like Show World, the Pussy Cat, the Seven Eleven, and the Avon in New York, Vivienne was there to capture their acts. And what’s more she interviewed them all as well.
We sat down with Vivienne recently to hear about her life, and are pleased to showcase some of her work here.
All photographs on this page belong to Vivienne Maricevic.
Vivienne Maricevic: Discovering Photography
I first picked up a camera when my twin brother returned from Vietnam with one. Before that I didn’t know anything about photography.
He had a 35mm Miranda camera, which was heavy when I held it. He didn’t want to use it anymore so he gave it to me. This was in the early 1970s. As soon as I held that camera, I knew that I wanted to start photographing with it. At first, I didn’t even know how to put a roll of film in it. My brother had to put the roll of film in it for me and take it out when I finished shooting a roll of black-and-white film. So that was my first camera.
I grew up north of New York City and was always attracted to the diversity of the city. At a very young age, around five, I remember my mother bringing me to Times Square on Sundays. We’d walk around and she’d point out all the different characters that were on the street of Broadway near the Ed Sullivan Theater. There used to be a lot of characters around. I remember the wrestler Haystack Calhoun appearing when we were there once. All these crazy characters were on the street. My mother was fascinated by them and I was, too.
My first pictures were taken in Bryant Park near Times Square. Back in the 1970s, Bryant Park was pretty dicey. There were a lot of homeless people there. I still have my first pictures that I ever took from inside the park. I would approach a person and ask if I could photograph them and they always replied yes. I recall that, for someone who was entirely self-taught, I took a few interesting portraits.
I’ve always been attracted to the underbelly, the outcasts, of society. I like to befriend them and hear their story and make them feel that they have somebody that’s listening to them, so that’s what I did. I saw a bunch of homeless people in Bryant Park and I did some pictures of them, portraits of them sitting around.
When I looked at the pictures for the first time, I liked the ‘instantness’ of capturing something. Before I started taking photographs, I used to paint with watercolors and it would take me a while to finish each picture. So I liked that it was quicker than doing a painting.
I immediately became attracted to photography. I knew about composition and lighting from my paintings, so I applied that to my photography and just kept shooting pictures. I was hard on myself and I knew when what I photographed was not a ‘good’ photograph. I just kept photographing until I felt my photos became ‘mature’. I’d rather be photographing than doing anything else, and I was very disciplined about doing what I loved.
I wanted to find more guys who were living on the street. I heard about the Bowery, so I went there and started a series called ‘On the Bowery’. I would spend my weekends on the Bowery shooting these guys. I have a picture of me with a guy drinking from a bottle at that time. I remember he insisted that I drink first before he drank out of it.
This was the mid seventies. It was a very shady and dangerous time. The news was full of stories about a guy who was running around the city with a knife killing people, and I remember hearing sirens all the time. I’d be there in the dark, all hours of the day and night. I was in my early twenties. I was so naïve, but I never felt scared.
I was always attracted to people, places and things that were different. That was the beginning of my photography.
We’re a very puritanical country, we’re not as open minded as Europeans. We suppress a lot of things, such as the male nude image. I started photographing the male nude in 1975. Back then and still today, there are men who never had the experience of being photographed in the nude by a female. Women have been photographed and painted throughout history by men. There are still very few male nude photographs being published for women to see compared to the amount of female nudes for men to see.
I knew a lot of male photographers who were photographing female nudes. So I started photographing some of my male friends in the nude. The photos were good, but they were restricted to this one age group, and I wanted to photograph a variety of different shapes, sizes and ages of regular guys. I wanted to show the beauty in all of us, not just the perfect body.
To get a cross-section of men, I put an ad in The Village Voice: “Female photographer seeks men for nude photography. Call (212) etc.” The reaction was phenomenal. I put my home number in there… of course my phone was ringing at all hours. I had to unplug it at night.
I didn’t need to meet the man first. I spoke to them over the phone first, and made sure that the shoot was just about being photographed and not of a sexual nature. If anything sexual was brought up, I would not set up a photo shoot. Times were different in those days and I never had a problem with anyone. All were interesting experiences. I always arrived with just a camera in a small canvas bag. Not seeing much equipment, the guy would say, “You’re the photographer?!”.
I would say, “Trust me.”
My film of choice has always been black-and-white, and I still shoot with a 50mm lens and available light. I’ve never been technical. I guess that comes from being self-taught and doing everything my own way. What you see in the photo is what I saw looking through my lens. I thrive with lots of obstacles and challenges, so it always worked out well for me to get photographs that I’m pleased with.
Male Burlesque shows
After leaving a male nude photo shoot in the West 50s on Broadway, I was walking through Times Square back to my apartment. Times Square was one of my favorite places during those days, it was always interesting to walk through it as you never knew who you’d see or what you’d see. I came across a barker outside of a venue for gay men featuring male burlesque. It was called the Big Top. He had a flyer that said “Come on in! Male burlesque dancers! Come and see them for yourself!” I took his flyer and walked upstairs. Of course I met resistance immediately. There was a guy there who said, “What are you here for?”
I said, “I’m here to see the male dancers.”
It was a Saturday afternoon and when I looked into the space, it was all red… They had these red lights illuminating the stage. I knew I wanted to take pictures of the dancers and I wanted to shoot in color. That was the first time I ever shot color film.
First, I had to get permission because no one had ever taken pictures in there before, and there were signs that said “No Cameras Allowed.” I said, “Is there a manager here?” I spoke to the guy in charge and told him I was a photographer and asked if I could have permission to photograph in the club. I figured he’d be concerned about me interfering with his patrons, so I kept telling him that I would never photograph the audience. I didn’t have a wide angle lens and I assured him I wouldn’t be intruding on any of the paid customers. I would only photograph the guys that want me to photograph them. I also said that I always get model releases. I happened to have some photographs with me of male nudes so I showed them to him.
He finally agreed and said, “Okay, but not now. Come back next week.” I was excited and when I returned I went straight to the dressing room to talk to the male performers to tell them what I wanted to do. The majority of the dancers loved the fact that I would be photographing them. It also brought more attention to them, while they were on stage, with me photographing them.
That’s how I began doing my series of male burlesque photographs. I noticed that there were other similar clubs in the area and so I visited those as well. The next place I went to was the infamous Ramrod in the West 40s. In the late 1970s it was one of the most popular gay male burlesque clubs in New York City. It was the wildest place. The Ramrod had a lot of explicit sex going on… back stage, in the aisles and in the seats. That was the first club to be closed down and padlocked with chains by former Mayor Giuliani during the AIDS crisis.
From the Ramrod and the Big Top, I photographed the male burlesque scene at other places like The Unicorn and Crazy Horse.
Live Sex shows
I was always looking around for other male clubs in the Times Square area. One day, I was at 42nd St. and Eighth Avenue, staring at Show World’s marquee, which said “Live Sex Shows.”
They had pictures of women and couples on the outside of the place. I’d never seen a couple having sex on stage with people paying to watch. At the Ramrod, the sex was going on between customers – but it wasn’t the main event. I was curious to see if this was just a ploy to bring people in. If this was really happening then I wanted to see it. And of course, photograph it.
So I went into Show World. It was a little bit more difficult for me to convince the manager to let me take photographs. The person at the entrance said there was no way I could do that since their policy explicitly said “No Cameras Allowed.” The guy said, “You can get in as a customer if you want to pay – but you’re not going to be photographing.”
I said, “Well, who do I need to speak to?” They gave me the name of a person who had an office around the corner on 43rd St. So I went there and spoke to man who was in charge of everything at Show World. I brought my photos to show him my work. I told him there was no way that I would ever photograph any of the performers who didn’t want to be photographed, nor any of the patrons. So he gave me a letter, with his name on it that allowed me to photograph at Show World. I still have that letter.
So from then on, I was always at Show World and started a new series of photographs. This time I focused on the live sex shows on the main stage and the performers who were called “love teams”, and also the women in the peep booths.
There were three levels in Show World. The first level was a peep show, and then there were theaters on the upper floors. You had to pay for each different floor. It was open twenty four hours.
Those who worked the live shows and peep booths seemed to be there night and day. A lot of people slept in the dressing room. They had showers for them too. Sometimes the performers were meeting the person they were going to have sex with on stage for the first time in the dressing room. I knew a couple that lived in a van over on 10th or 11th Ave and they came into the dressing room to eat their fast food, have a shower, do the sex and then go back to the van, where they would sleep. I became good friends with this guy named Jack who ran the projection and did the music for everybody. He was a character, a fun guy.
Some of the performers were transient whereas others also did live sex shows on the ‘circuit’ of local theatres, such as the Pussy Cat, Seven Eleven, the Avon, and the Bryant Theater. These theaters were all managed by the same person, a woman called Stella Stevens. I still have the card that she gave me. I laminated it. She was helpful and gave me permission to take photographs at all her places.
I also went to the Melody Burlesk. Bob Anthony and Dominique managed the place. Bob loved everyone, so I was allowed to photograph there, too. They gave me a little card that I could use when I went there. I’d just go up to the booth, show my pass, and that’s how I got in.
I went to these places whenever I could, photographing for years. I didn’t just turn up, shoot film for a while, and leave. I hung out, sometimes not even photographing, just socializing. I developed relationships with the people in the photographs. I liked being there and having a good time with everyone. I was taking photographs and I was having lots of fun times, too.
Sometimes I’d meet my boyfriend, Michael, who is now my husband, and we’d go and see a ‘love team’ on stage or to a theater to watch a porn movie and see who was sitting in the seats. Jamie Gillis would often be there, as would other porn stars that lived in the area.
Female Porn Stars
While I was at Show World they started having a featured porn star appear once a week. These women were brought there as headliners. I was immediately intrigued by these porn stars, so I started a new series of photographs dedicated to porn stars.
For this series, I used a different approach. The way that I had been shooting the live sex shows was documentary style. I didn’t pose anybody. I didn’t tell them to do anything. I just took pictures of what was going on. They kept doing their thing, and I kept photographing.
For my new series I didn’t want to photograph them on stage, nor did I want to photograph them in an explicit way like they were photographed for the porn magazines. I wanted to photograph them in black and white. I wanted more of a fine art approach. It was also important for me to photograph them in their home environments, or in the hotel room where they were staying. Show World would usually book them at the Carter Hotel so I often went to shoot them there.
I would introduce myself to the featured porn star and would show them some of my photos. I’d tell them that I wasn’t interested in shooting them explicitly, but in more arty way. They liked that.
I also wanted to go one step further. I wanted to have a better understanding of them. I wanted to know where they were coming from, and what they were really like as people. After they were photographed, I interviewed them with my tape recorder. I interviewed many of the early 1980s porn stars… Annie Sprinkle, Veronica Hart, Danielle, Sparky Vasc, Tish Ambrose, Vanessa Del Rio, Samantha Fox and others. Many of them became close friends. I was close to Kandi Barbour. She was a vulnerable girl, but so sweet.
Male Porn Stars
The porn industry was still big in New York City in the 1980s, and I got to know many of the male performers, too – people like Marc Stevens, Jerry Butler, Ron Jeremy and others. I photographed and interviewed them, too.
Later, the porn movie industry shifted to Los Angeles when everybody got video cameras. They started to do these quick one day wonders on videotape, they needed good weather all the time so they could shoot outdoors, so the industry shifted out west.
But before that there was lots of energy, life, variety and character in Times Square, now it’s all gone. I was often in Times Square by myself, even late at night with a camera in my small canvas bag. I used to see lots of pimps and prostitutes on the streets at that time. They thought I was an undercover cop since they use to see me going in and out of the sex clubs, but they never bothered me.
One day I was in the dressing room at Show World waiting for whoever was coming in next, and this woman came into the dressing room. I thought she was a new performer. I had my camera, so she asked me, “Are you a photographer?”
I said, “Yes.” I told her I knew Jack and all the performers who work here. “I take pictures of those who want to be photographed.”
She said, “Really?! Maybe you can photograph me. I’m going to be working downstairs with a group of ladies, who I will be managing. We’re working in the peep show booths with some of the transsexuals I’m bringing in here.”
I said, “Transsexuals?” I’d never seen a transsexual. To be honest, I didn’t believe her. She looked just like me.
So she said “I’ll show you.” And she pulled down her pants and she had a penis.
I wanted to start photographing them. And just as I had done before, I wanted to shoot them in their home environments. So I started meeting them at Show World in the downstairs area. I became friends with them, developed a rapport with them, and they gave me their phone numbers, I called and set a day and time, when I would go to where they lived to photograph them. I gave them photos in exchange for a model release. Some of them needed photos for their ads that they put in the back of Al Goldstein’s newspaper, Screw. I also called many of them from the ads that were in Screw, asking them if I could photograph them and give them new photos to have.
They told me about other clubs in the city where transsexuals went to socialize and to meet men to be with. One of them was Sally’s on West 43rd St. Many of them did shows there and they wanted me to come and photograph them. They dressed up and lip synced to songs on stage. I became good friends with a number of them. They were fun to be around and loved to party. Liz Eden, the trans woman who the film ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (1975) was based on, became a close friend. I remember one gorgeous trans girl called International Chrysis. She was beautiful.
I was also interested in the way that transvestites would get themselves together to go out to the clubs. So I took three pictures of each of them; one in their casual clothes, one while they were getting ready, and finally one when they were in their glamorous outfits.
Showing the Photographs
In 1995, Edition Stemmle published a monograph of these triptychs, along with nudes of male-to-female transsexuals, entitled Male to Female: La Cage Aux Folles.
My work has been exhibited and published worldwide; New York magazine reviewed an exhibition of my early male nudes, ‘Naked Men’. It was a good review, too. Male burlesque photographs were exhibited at the Leslie-Lohman Gallery, ‘Porn Stars’ exhibited in Seattle, photographs from Male-to-Female were exhibited in Munich, Germany and have been included in many selected Group Shows. I have been awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Photography Fellowship, along with inclusion in collections here and abroad.
My lifetime mission and passion is to continue to photograph erotica, sexuality and gender positively and have begun a new photographic series that will enlighten people about nudity. But I do want to say that NYC and Times Square has given me a lifetime passion that I will always be thankful for, especially being able to photograph during the decade of the 80s in the Times Square that I once knew and will always cherish. Times Square will always have a special place in my heart.
Vivienne is currently seeking a reputable publisher for her third monograph, ‘Times Square 1980s – Sex, Porn and Burlesk’. Interested parties should contact Vivienne at her website.