Elsa Quarsell: The Domestic Burlesque

Elsa Quarsell, photographer behind the new book The Domestic Burlesque, talks burlesque around the world, self-publishing, and traveling.

Agent Lynch by Elsa Quarsell
Agent Lynch by Elsa Quarsell

Q: Though Swedish born, London has been your home since 1999, and where you have made a name for yourself as an editorial and fashion photographer.  Your new book, The Domestic Burlesque seems to stray, in content at least, from the majority of your work for clients such as The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Independent, and Vogue.

Do you strive, as so many photographers do, to separate your “professional” work (meaning client commissioned) work from your “personal” work?  Is it possible to be equally passionate about both?

No I don’t but I’ve noticed that you easily get pigeon holed.  Now that people know my personal work I tend to get more work related to burlesque. But I really enjoy the variety of the work I do. It keeps it interesting. I love it all.

Q: How did you first become involved or intrigued by the world of burlesque?

I’ve been going to 50’s and 60’s club for years as I love the music and style. They started having burlesque performances in one of those clubs and I thought it looked like a lot of fun so I started to research it and found lots of great performers that I wanted to photograph.

Angi B Lovely by Elsa Quarsell
Angi B Lovely by Elsa Quarsell

Q: How was The Domestic Burlesque born? Why choose to shoot performers in their homes?

I had no interest in shooting in a venue where it’s all about the show and the stage character. I wanted to get a picture that showed a bit more of the person behind the character and I also thought it could be quite humorous. It started as a small project with the goal of having an exhibition but it grew bigger and bigger and BIGGER!

Q: What are some of your favorite behind the scenes memories from the shooting of the book?

When I shot Cha Cha Boom Boom (the girl covered in Nivea creme and feathers) she had quite a few builders on scaffolding right outside her windows…we had to tape up fabric in front. I would have liked to see their faces had the fabric fallen down!It was a really funny shoot to do, quite bizarre.

Tokyo was great as I had never been before and it was a very interesting experience. Going to peoples’ homes in cities you haven’t been before is the best way of getting to know the city. It was really interesting to see how people live over there (and everywhere else too).  I often spent a bit more time with the performers; I’d stay for lunch or dinner and got properly introduced to Japanese culture.


Q: The project took you traveling literally around the world, and took two years to complete.  Can you walk us through the logistics of such a project?  How did you find and choose the performers you wanted to shoot without being intimately aware of the local burlesque scene in each community? Were you looking for “the biggest names” or the “most interesting stories” or come other combination of factors?

I looked at flyers and websites for big shows and festivals to see who was performing in the different cities and who the big names were. Performers often suggested other performers too. I did all the interviews after so didn’t know about the most interesting stories. It was often a particular routine that caught my interest. For example, I saw a photo of Nasty Canasta somewhere doing the act in the photo ‘The Unknown Stripper’ and I thought that’s hilarious, I have to photograph her. And when I heard about Honey Wilde’s Margaret Thatcher act I thought ‘I’ve got to have her in the book’!

I would have loved to go to Seattle, Las Vegas and California as well as there are a lot of great performers over there but I just couldn’t afford going everywhere and I had to limit the size of project somehow. Maybe in a second volume….

Q: How did you manage to research and finance such a major undertaking? Did you seek to work with a publishing house originally, or was the book always to be self-published? What are the pros and cons of each route?

I’ve basically spent ALL my money on this project. I did try and get a publisher in the beginning and they all seemed to like the pictures but didn’t want to take the risk…or burlesque didn’t fit in with them. It was far from finished then and when I finally finished it I was so eager to get it out and didn’t want to wait another 1-2 years for a publisher. I had one publisher on board that was really enthusiastic and wanted it printed quickly but one day he just disappeared from earth….and I decided to self publish. It’s been fun doing it all myself and I’ve learned a lot, but it’s also incredibly hard. A lot of shops only buy from bigger publishers so getting the work out there has proved hard. You could all help by asking for it in your local book shop!

COVER4Q: Were there any notable observations you made regarding burlesque in different countries?  Does the scene in Tokyo vary greatly from the European scene? What about New York and Texas?  Are there larger observations to be made regarding sexuality or femininity in each culture?

The scene in Tokyo is pretty small and many performers come from a belly dancing background. Burlesque is not as accepted over there. But the performers I met are amazing performers, all working hard on making burlesque big in Japan. And they are all so full of energy, it’s all about happiness and laughter, like Coppelia said, “Colorful is happy!”

The New York scene is absolutely crazy, quite extreme and so funny! I had such a good time there!

Q: Walk us through your process once you met the performer, often for the first time on the day of the shoot.  How much of the posing is directed by you and how much is the performers?

I would normally arrive, have a look at the different outfits and decide what would work and where.  I would give a few directions of what I wanted and we would try a couple of different things. Mostly directed by me but sometimes it was a joint effort.

Q: Seeing as this is the January Issue, we have to ask: What are your New Year’s Resolutions?

To work as hard as I possibly can, promote the book, start a new project and get an agent in Berlin! I’d like to move there before the end of the year!

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