Despite his livelihood as owner of the Fourth Street biker bar Davidsons Distillery, photographer David Muskin doesn’t seem much like a “biker dude.” He’s soft-spoken, with oval-framed glasses and a flyaway ponytail. Thumbing through a collection of photos in his home—filled with vintage pinball machines and photography books—he pulls out one he took at a tattoo contest at Crystal Bay Casino.
In it, a blonde spilling out of a white bikini holds her arms up triumphantly. A man points his video camera directly at her crotch, which she’s fully exposing to show off the flames of tattooed fire rising from her groin. The emcee is leaning forward, laughing into his microphone, as shadows dance rather creepily behind them. Even though everyone in this picture looks like they’re having a great time, there’s something sad about it.
“They fall just shy of being pornographic, and that’s what makes them artworthy,” Muskin, 55, says of some of his photographs. “It’s kind of sad, but this town has sort of wrecked my vision of eroticism.”
None of his 15 black-and-white photographs exhibited in Exposed Dialogues at the Nevada Museum of Art would be described as approaching pornography. But grittiness, conveyed with an almost film noir sensibility, is certainly there, as is his acute attention to geometry and the interplay of the real with the absurd.
The museum’s selection spans nearly 30 years of Muskin’s photography. Its photos include a man in a wizard hat reciting Shakespeare in front of two tumbling dryers at a laundromat; a woman in an antique car wearing Muskin’s mother’s wedding dress; two cocktail waitresses at the end of their shift; mannequins in a storefront window at night beneath a neon sign reading “Changes"; a sad-looking little girl with her biker dad; a grim reaper standing over a California irrigation pipe during a drought; a little boy on a bicycle, grinning wildly while leaning toward a motorcycle, likely dreaming of the day when he can ride it.
Muskin’s photos are taken with a Nikon FM camera—plain, old fashioned film—with no cropping or digital manipulation involved. His work, he says, is greatly influenced by three photographers: Diane Arbus, whose respectful shots of “freaks” and “unusual” people were able to capture where the lines of glamour, dreams and self-illusion crossed into a sadder reality; the journalistic sense of Danny Lyon, whose 1968 book The Bikeriders took viewers into the mysterious world of bikers; and the lyricism of Jacques Henri Lartigue, who began shooting playful photos of his wealthy family’s excursions at age 6.
Muskin says his bar, which he opened after spending 28 years working for a phone company in California, is like a stage set for his photography. As such, his photographs are populated with busty women with worn faces, hard men with scraggly beards, bikes and tattoos. His photos cut through the crap, and, for those in front of his lens, a vulnerable side comes out in their faces, despite their best efforts to cover it up.
“Some of them might be proud, and some of them might be disgraced,” he says of his subjects’ reactions to his photos.
He says his intention is not to be critical of the scenes and people he shoots. Many of them are his friends.
“I’m just trying to show it for what it is,” he says.