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Where the girls aren't

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Timothy Hursley's latest photography book, Brothels of Nevada: Candid Views of America's Legal Sex Industry (Princeton Architectural Press), is a voyeuristic delight -- but not for any prurient reasons.

The book collects exterior and interior shots from 25 of Nevada's houses of ill repute, which Hursley photographed from the mid-'80s through present day. Nevada, the only state in the nation with legalized prostitution, currently has about 300 women working in the industry. Oddly enough, the workers only appear in three of the book's 166 photos. Hursley, an architectural photographer (and co-author of Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency), chooses to let the spaces speak without interruptions from their occupants or customers. The result is a startling, sometimes somber but almost always poignant meditation on the currency of sex and fleeting standards of seduction.

Most interiors reveal a tacky flea market aesthetic, and several show a penchant for cheesy '70s painted velvet artwork. Others tend toward more of a rundown-honky-tonk meets shag-carpeted Motel 6 vibe, where the inherent seediness gets obscured by flat-out gaudiness. Ionic columns and doublewides, after all, do not always work so well together.

The spaces depicted don't so much say "sexy." Instead they hint of the tedious everyday existence of the brothels' inhabitants. A few stray whips, dildos and blow-up dolls do surface, but such accessories seem incidental next to the banal accoutrements of working-class life, like the shelves full of timers or frequent glimpses of poorly written house rules.

Hursley's images carry a crisp, almost detached coolness that might be mistaken for callousness, though the body of work thankfully refrains from making any grand statements of moral judgment. An afterward by Alexa Albert, author of Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women, speaks of the makeshift nature of Nevada's sex houses, but raises more questions than it answers.

Still, Brothels of Nevada makes for an enticing visual tour of an under-explored industry. Its post-coital silence and reluctance to volunteer any unearned information fits its subject matter like a well-worn stocking.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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