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"I try to pose as I think he would like
shy at first, then bolder. I'm not so foolish
that I don't know this photograph we make
will bear the stamp of his name, not mine."
Storyville Diary, Bellocq, April 1911
- Countess writes my description for the book
Violet, a fair-skinned beauty,
recites poetry and soliloquies;
nightly she performs her tableau vivant,
becomes a living statue, and object of art
and I fade again into someone I'm not.
Storyville Diary, Blue Book, June 1911
- please do not think
I am the wayward girl
you describe. I alone
have made this choice.
Save what I pay for board,
what I earn is mine. Now
my labor is my own.
Letters from Storyville,
A good photographic portrait is the result of a successful collaboration between the photographer and the sitter. The remarkable individuality of Bellocq's portraits is the individuality of his subjects. With Bellocq's help, the women have realized themselves in pictures.
Though many are nudes, Bellocq's portraits reveal a simple frankness and respect for his subjects that runs completely counter to pornography. They number among the finest works of photographic art this country has produced, and are the only true-to-life visual record of this extraordinary part of American history.
Down to Earth Photos of Down to Earth Women: There is nothing particularly glamorous or titillating about Bellocq's photographs and, indeed, nothing particularly glamorous or titillating about the women who are its subjects. This is precisely what makes the photos so extraordinary. We see the women of Storyville, not all dolled up for their clients, but simply at home, being themselves. We see a variety of women--younger, older, heavier, thinner, clothed, unclothed, seductive, distant, joyous, troubled, relaxed in front of the camera, decidedly ill-at-ease. We see the uninflated, yet powerful, presence of a group of women who, simply enough, worked as prostitutes in New Orleans shortly before World War I. We see these women photographed honestly and respectfully, appreciated for simply being who they are, notably separate from the glamorization and vilification, the whore stigma, through which prostitutes are constantly distorted by mainstream culture.
A woman lies on an ironing board set up behind her house, dressed in a loose shirt, knickers, and dark stockings, kicking her heels while playing with her miniature dog. Two women sit on a flowered rug, sharing a bottle of wine and playing cards. A pretty woman sits in her window, nude and relaxed, smiling at the camera. A woman sits quietly in a plain wooden chair against a rumpled, makeshift backdrop, her smock off her shoulders, her hands tucked protectively under her arms, looking thoughtfully off to one side.
The surroundings in the photos are generally meager, even dismal - - plain rooms with flowered wallpapers, sometimes minimally decorated with college pennants or small mementos. The quality of the photographic plates reinforces the mood. Many are scratched, peeling, stained, or broken. Some have sections that are missing entirely. In most of the nude photographs, the women's faces have been crudely, almost violently, scratched away entirely -- (see E .J. Bellocq) perhaps by Bellocq himself, perhaps to protect their identities. And yet there is a basic kind of grounded sensuality that the women in these photos convey, quite different from the affectedly mirthful conventions of the classic pinup or the coy French postcard. It is the sensuality of women at ease with themselves and with the sexuality of their bodies, an ease that was hardly typical of women of their time.
Bellocq's portraits show the women in various poses and degrees of undress, comfortable with their nudity and at ease in front of the camera; a few appear fully clothed, showing off their finest lace dresses and favorite pets. None of the photographs depict sexual acts or even suggest the presence of a man other than the photographer, whose pictures convey respect rather than voyeurism.
After Bellocq's death in 1949, these photographs remained unknown for years before being discovered, purchased, restored and printed by photographer Lee Friedlander. Bellocq also reportedly photographed scenes inside the opium dens of New Orleans' Chinatown, but unfortunately none of this work survives.
The girls of Storyville plied their trade in the brothels and cheap 'cribs' of Storyville. For 20 years, the red-light district of 'Storyville' covered 16 square blocks in its entirety, surrounded by the St. Louis Cemeteries.
E.J. Bellocq is best known for his private photographs of prostitutes in the legal brothels of New Orleans' Storyville red light district. Mostly taken inside the brothels, these portraits have a remarkably relaxed, intimate feel.
They number among the finest works of photographic art this country has produced, and are the only true-to-life visual record of this extraordinary part of American history. The remarkable individuality of Bellocq's portraits is the individuality of his subjects.