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The polaroids of Isabel Dresler intrigued me from the outset. From her choice of medium and composition, to her choice of subject—she is tracing the edges of something profound and raw that most of us never see.

We sit together in the train car at Empire Coffee, the site of her month-long exhibition: Wish You Were Here. I thumb through her book of photos over and over while we talk, seeing them in new ways every time.

2Part of the obvious appeal of photographs is that we can capture a moment and save it forever (or at least that’s the illusion). We have a sense that fleeting things can be made permanent, that we can choose the memories that will define our lives and they will remain crystal clear. In this digital age it’s become even easier to indulge in that idea, to snap up images of everything, change them into what we idealize them to be, and throw away the ones we’d rather forget.

Of course, that isn’t quite true: nothing lasts forever, and an altered image is like remembering a fairy tale.

Polaroids are more honest. They age, they fade and warp with time, eventually they will die. More than that, they can’t be altered. Once you press that button it’s done, so to create that perfect image you have to think, prepare, and ultimately be willing to accept the outcome.

Isabel Dresler takes this a step further: many of her photographs layer exposures, image upon image, creating mystifying connections between what were once separate moments. To do this she has to hold that picture in her mind, hold that memory like a ghost while she imagines how it will interlock with the next one, and prepares again for her only shot at catching it.

There’s another level to all this though, and that’s what’s important to Isabel.

 Degradation

17What’s more degrading: working for low wages under a boss who’s always trying to squeeze more out of you, or being a sex worker?

Before you answer, consider for a minute where we draw the lines, and why. There are a lot of different aspects of the sex industry, from prostitution to pornography to exotic dancing to phone sex to webcams… anything that involves stimulating sexual desire for profit.

There are other industries that profit from our base desires. Whether we’re talking about the lust for battle that’s stimulated by violent sports and action films and videogames, or the lust for once hard-to-find fat and sugar that drives us to pour money into processed food companies—we don’t find it shameful to work in any industry other than sex. What makes this so different, so dehumanizing?

Isabel photographs a lot of things, but I think her most fascinating subjects are these people, and the way she portrays them: not as victims, not as objects—as complex individuals with their own ways of expressing sexuality.

12She’s traveled the nation, meeting people through word of mouth referrals, interviewing them and taking their photographs—both for art and for their own commercial use. She’s shot scenes that are soft, scenes that are sleazy, and scenes that actually made me blush (and, reportedly, made her mother blush on more than one hilarious occasion).

She’s met people from all walks of the industry and all walks of life—high class prostitutes who charge $600 an hour, street hookers in Vegas, porn performers in L.A.—people who might be mothers of three, or have a Masters degree from UC Berkeley. They are people who chose this line of work for various reasons, but if there’s one thing they have in common it’s that they all deliberately chose it.

That isn’t to say there aren’t degrading and exploitative circumstances for sex workers. There are predatory people who lure others in with the promise of good money, but then take advantage of them financially and treat them poorly. There are “massage” parlors that charge the girls so many fees they walk out with $10 an hour, feeling like dirt. There are situations with disrespectful clients, and they have to be on guard.

But there’s also a community that’s based around acceptance, and serves as a secondary family for many people who were rejected by or had to get away from their birth family. For some people there’s empowerment and freedom to make things happen that they could never otherwise afford. It can be a way to put themselves through school, or be able to spend more time with their children.

We must’ve sat there for close to two hours talking about it, the ice from my drink melting into milk-tinged coffee water over and over as I drank it down to nothing. She’s privy to a world where all those puritanical taboos are swept aside—and it’s just this world, right around the corner from everything familiar.

Exposure

She has a hard time getting her photographs into local galleries. People assume they’re going to be all pictures of boobs (she notes the difference between drawn boobs, which are “art,” and photographed boobs, which are “porn”). They’re better received in the urban centers.10

I flip through her photo book again, a high quality board-book she had printed for sale at this exhibition. It contains a collection of her favorite polaroids from her recent travels. Some are of plants and animals, some depict urban decay, and some are of the people she’s befriended. “There’s more boobs in the book than I’m allowed to show in this exhibition, actually. And that horse is naked.” We laugh at the horror.

She points out details in the pictures and tells me the context. “I was with my friend at the creek. We were naked looking up at that tree.” “That one was at The Matador. The first room we walked into there were people shooting speed, so we had to get another room to shoot in.” “This one was shot at like 4:00 in the morning. I was so tired from driving, but she was like, ‘let’s take pictures with my records!’ There’s another one where she’s all spread that I really like.”

The pictures are small and intimate, encapsulated like little caged birds. The train car itself adds a strange layer of context to them, this stationary thing that was meant to be in motion, a snapshot in its own way.

The books will be on sale for somewhere around $30, as well as the actual framed polaroids which are one of a kind. There may also be a second, secret book, available with a wink and a nod if you ask the right people at the reception. Oh, have I not mentioned the reception yet? The photographs will be on display through the month of April, but the reception is the perfect opportunity to meet Isabel and get the stories that make each picture a piece of the world. Plus, you know, boobs.

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Managing Editor for Synthesis Weekly. Amy likes to make clothes, plant flowers, and chase butterflies.