TIME Culture

Showgirls at Work and at Play: Gordon Parks’ Nightclub Portraits

Gordon Parks' pictures of showgirls matter simply because they're beautiful -- and because they offer, as LIFE magazine noted, "living, breathing proof of the poet's point that beauty is its own excuse for being."

In December 1958, right around Christmas, LIFE magazine published a 200-page special issue on the glories and absurdities of American entertainment. Such special issues were not exactly rare—LIFE frequently ended the year with a double issue on a grand theme (“The Sea,” “The Bible,” “The Great Outdoors”)—but here we’d like to take a moment and note one article in particular from that 1958 issue, “Without the Girls, Show Biz Is No Biz,” and its extraordinary portraits of showgirls by Gordon Parks.

Echoing the works of, for example, Toulouse-Lautrec and others who have immortalized entertainers—at work and at rest—through the centuries, Parks’ color pictures are at-once charged with emotion and curiously prosaic. These are, after all, women with a job to do: the fact that they do it in front of avid audiences, while largely undressed, only makes the evident tedium of the work all the more poignant.

But the strength of Parks’ photos, in the end, is not that they offer oblique commentary on the drudgery of labor, or that they somehow reveal something about “show people” that we never knew. Instead, the pictures matter because they’re beautiful—and because they offer, as LIFE noted, “living, breathing proof of the poet’s point that beauty is its own excuse for being.”

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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