Into the desert with Joe Gallo


An older woman with bright red hair twirls in the center of the frame. She wears a purple gown with matching elbow length gloves. She is seen fro, below, with a cloudy sky behind her.Joe Gallo, Tempest Storm, circa 2003/2005Credit: Joe Gallo

When I asked Joe Gallo how long he’s been making art, he asked me how far I’d like for him to go. “That goes pretty far back,” he said. 

Gallo was ten years old when he asked his uncle if he could borrow his camera. He never gave it back. 

From there, Gallo’s journey with self-taught photography grew. He liked the immediacy of the medium and having a different approach to making an image than, say, drawing or painting. 

Throughout his art career, he worked in advertising, design, and broadcast television, but he never stopped taking photographs. 

For his personal portfolio, his exploration of certain subjects led him to Cherish, a burlesque dancer who he remembers owned a bookstore in Logan Square and performed with an eight-foot python snake at the Beat Kitchen. 

Gallo’s original intention was to create a portrait series of carnival burlesque dancers. But soon he was wrapped into Cherish’s world and began to document performers across Chicago. By networking with the dancers, he learned about the Miss Exotic World Museum, located in Helendale, California, on a former chicken ranch in the middle of the Mojave Desert. 

Once a year, the museum hosted the Miss Exotic World Pageant, a three-day festival with workshops, dance classes, costume-making classes, and performances. 

Situated between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, in the hot 100-degree sun, it was a perfect middle ground for performers to meet up and dance. It would end up growing as a pilgrimage for burlesque dancers, where performers would take the stage well into their mature age.

Gallo photographed the performers with a more behind-the-scenes look—when they are reapplying makeup, or mid-twirl, or walking back toward their car with a suitcase. 

You can see these photographs at the Epiphany Center for the Arts in the West Loop, a former west-side church where the Black Panther operated its Free Breakfast for Children program and where Fred Hampton held his last meeting. Now it’s an events venue with free music, several galleries, and happy hour specials. The Center has been revitalized, featuring a saints and sinners theme throughout the space that invites the taboo and the sacred. 

In conjunction with Gallo’s exhibition is Marilyn Artus’s “Burlesque Diva Dia Muertos”; Artus is a former burlesque promoter. She created sculptural skulls that are situated beneath Gallo’s photos and feature the names of the patron saints of burlesque, like Dixie Evans—the ringleader of Miss Exotic World—and Dorian Dennis, aka Double D. 

Both exhibitions highlight the memory of the women, a resting place where they are forever dancing.

The photographs themselves are like film stills. You aren’t sure what year it is or the location, you just know it’s dusty and hot, and there are a lot of sequins involved. 

Many of the images have characters walking out of the frame, appearing off-center or gazing down toward the photographer. Sparkles features a performer onstage with her backside turned toward us, adorned with a glittery G-string. A photographer stands in front of Gallo with a flash attached to their camera—the scene seems like a scrabble for the perfect shot. 

A curvy burlesque dancer stands to the right, partially out of the frame. A large yellow fan is held in front of their body. Behind them is a white fence with star cutouts on it, and a large semicircle sign, also partially out of frame, which reads World.
The annual Miss Exotic World Pageant was a three-day festival with workshops, costume-making classes, and performances.
Credit: Joe Gallo

This sense of movement is present in many of the images, much like the sexy, savvy dance moves that the performers encapsulated. However, when I asked Gallo what the atmosphere was like, he said most participants were quiet. There wasn’t any hooting or hollering; there was a sense of respect for the art. “I mean, it wasn’t the opera, everybody would applaud, but it wasn’t gawking. It was really kind of a nice time,” Gallo said. 

The crowd was mostly dancers themselves and mostly women. Since many older women were there, and they “still had all the moves,” as Gallo explained, the younger dancers were able to learn alongside the legends of their craft.

When Gallo began taking photos of burlesque, the art form was going through a revival. When he made his way to Miss Exotic World, the event had been going on for a decade. He attended in 2003, where he described a stage surrounding a swimming pool. By 2005, he said the crowd was really growing as burlesque became more popular. 

“It was the Burning Man of burlesque,” he said. “I realized, ‘Wow, this is an old art form. This is really important.’”

Judges were the winners from the last pageant and gave each winner a plastic trophy, an honorable prize since it was bestowed in the presence of the art form’s legends. 

Tempest Storm is one of the superstar subjects in the exhibition; known as the “Queen of Exotic Dancers,” she was popular in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. She had a difficult early life and was married at 15. One day, after six months of marriage, the Georgia girl decided to leave for Hollywood to start her career.

Although she retired in 1995, she would go on to participate in Miss Exotic World until 2010, and Gallo was lucky enough to photograph her. The movement in this photograph, in particular, is alluring and swanky. Her flaming red hair and purple outfit elicit elegance with the desert sky behind her. She just oozes the word “legendary.” Without even knowing who she is, you know this isn’t her first rodeo. 

After 2005, Miss Exotic World built an additional stage, began maintaining archives in the actual museum, and created a legacy for the festival. 

The women in the photographs are saints in their own right, paving a path for future burlesque dancers and the eventual permanent location of Miss Exotic World, now in Las Vegas (where you can see Storm’s G-strings on display).



About Epiphany Center for the Arts

Conceived with the vision to return Epiphany to a place for people to congregate, the shuttered, historic Church of the Epiphany has been preserved and adapted into the Epiphany Center for the Arts, an iconic cultural hub “For the Good of Art, Entertainment and Events.” Thoughtfully designed, the exemplary 42,000-square-foot campus located on the artsy edge of Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood boasts three distinct venues (Epiphany Hall, The Sanctuary and The Chase House) and a stunning array of amenities. The campus also features eight galleries that serve as a platform for a diverse selection of artists from Chicago and beyond. Epiphany’s exhibitions showcase the work of women, the LGBTQIA community, artists of color, and the disability culture. Epiphany’s top priority is to curate programming that is inclusive, while providing a place established artists can collaborate with emerging ones. Epiphany’s programming serves to unite community and artists alike while “Bringing Chicago Together.” Visit to learn more.