When I first came across the name E. J. Bellocq, I was reading a book about New Orleans history, which casually skimmed over his name, as if the book itself was in the process of forgetting him. Having an interest in photography and women of this time, I was immediately intrigued and eager to learn more, so I fumbled over the pronunciation of his name a few times before looking up this semi-famous, fully illusory Storyville “director of photography” (as I like to call him). I was somewhat disappointed and intrigued to find, however, that his life is as much of a wonder to most historians today as he was to his neighbors when he was still alive. He appeared in few newspapers of the time, kept away from the public eye, and confided in only a few close friends. So who was this mysterious man? First, it’s important to talk about the era he is now famous for documenting: the loud, shimmering, and fantastically unpredictable, red-light district of New Orleans.
Storyville is better known today here in New Orleans as a local oriented T-shirt printer off Magazine Street. This name is a nod to New Orleans’ red-light district which glittered, swooned, and jazzed from 1897 until 1917. Named after Sidney Story, who sought to regulate prostitution, Storyville was the only legal red-light district in the United States. Patrons came from all over the country to the “unofficial American capital of vice” to see the sassy and beautiful ladies of New Orleans. Like so many of Storyville’s patrons, it’s said that jazz matured from adolescence into adulthood in the brothels and taverns that lined these streets. However, in 1918, the music ended and Storyville became history, even making international headlines. After the doors closed to the infamous red-light district and before the glitter could comfortably settle comfortably on the shelves, the site was scrubbed clean and cleared out for the Iberville Housing Project. Today, there are few material remains from this provocative industry still lingering. At least that’s what we believed until some dusty glass negative plates were dug up in the 1960’s.
Bellocq got his start in the French Quarter, where he was born to a privileged French Creole family. While his beginnings were hardly humble, he was frequently spotted darting around the quarter with his camera as an amateur photographer. He soon picked up work commercially. Between 1895 and 1940 he made his living documenting landmarks, statues, ships, and machinery for local companies, and the Louisiana State Museum. Not surprisingly, with his skill and eye for photography, he likely got bored with static objects and began searching for more challenging and rewarding subjects such as the opium dens in Chinatown. Once the largest in the Southern United States, New Orleans’ Chinatown disappeared in the mid-1900s and so did Bellocq’s photographs of the dealings that happened behind closed curtains there.
While Bellocq’s photos may have been lost there, his ventures into documentary photography didn’t end in Chinatown. His most famous work today is his once secret stash of negatives portraying the women of Storyville. Bellocq was a frequent visitor of the brothels on Basin Street, though not for reasons most would suspect. He was an artist, and perhaps one of the only ones ever allowed to take pictures inside these institutions. Bellocq gives us a rare glimpse into these fascinating ladies of history, and the intimate spaces they occupied. His photos show women of varying figures, styles of dress, and levels of comfort. I highly encourage you to spend the time looking through all his beautiful portraits.
You’ll notice as you look through his portraits that the faces have been violently scratched away from some of the nude images. There are many speculations as to why so many of these exist. Some suspect it was Bellocq’s own brother, a Jesuit priest, “defaced” these portraits when he found the stash among his deceased brother’s possessions. While the reason behind the intentional damage is uncertain, one thing is nearly for sure: the images were damaged in the emulsion process, leading many to believe Bellocq, himself, is the one responsible.
Bellocq’s been called a lot of things: a visionary, an artist, a dandy; and also some not so nice things: eccentric, senile, crazy. Many people, reporting on his life today, describe him as insane, hunched back, grotesque, dwarfish, and even hydrocephalic. I personally don’t believe these reports. Introvert artists are habitually pigeonholed and typecast into characterizations such as these due to wives tales, speculation, and sometimes jealousy. I do believe Bellocq may have been a little eccentric, as many artists, like myself, are. However, I also believe he had close relationships with many of the girls he photographed. Women in these photographs look comfortable, playful even. Many don masks and flirty poses, showing how comfortable they are with his presence. These women could’ve easily been his friends and confidants, as they were likely sociable, friendly and charismatic due to their profession. If the stories of his antisocial and neurotic behavior have any glimmer of truth, the ladies’ charisma and people skills would’ve put him effortlessly at ease. He likely felt comfortable in their presence, and felt a sense of responsibility to protect these women’s identity to some degree, and so censored their faces. Or perhaps some of the girls demanded this concession before allowing Storyville’s only “director of photography” access. Some believe he scratched out the faces out of some extreme neurotic fetishism, in an attempt to depersonalize the image. I don’t quite believe this either. As frequently as he visited the brothels, there’s never been a report of him doing anything but taking pictures, and there’s never been any record or evidence of him selling these images for profit in “blue books”.
Rumors of Bellocq’s odd demeanor increased near the end of his life and after his death. It’s said that he became more and more eccentric and unfriendly. Only his closest friends knew of these illicit photos in his possession. One of his doctors pondered his senility not long before his death. Many report, that in the final years of his life, he showed interest in nothing but photography, and spent his days drifting in and out of camera stores, and sometimes even falling asleep in them, which lent credence to his doctors’ claims and concerns.
Bellocq After Death
Bellocq was born, raised and died here in New Orleans, and in 1949 he was buried in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 3. Stories say that Bellocq stashed the memories of the women of Storyville under his couch and were later discovered by his brother. Hurricane Betsy destroyed most of these negatives in 1965. A few years later, however, another photographer by the name of Lee Friedlander acquired the negatives, some say from a junk shop, and gave a new life to Bellocq’s photography. In 1970 Bellocq’s photos were printed and hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and conjointly published in Storyville Portraits. In 1996 he was also published in Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, once again breathing new life into his well-deserving work.
Since his posthumous fame, Bellocq’s hand-printed commercial and professional studio prints, have begun to resurface. While there are no Storyville prints by the photographer himself, this work, in particular, is what gives life to his name in and outside of New Orleans today. He is the namesake for Louisiana Tech University’s E. J. Bellocq Gallery of Photography, and is the subject of many books and films. Perhaps most notably, he lives on in the controversial box office movie: Pretty Baby (1978), starring a young Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Keith Carradine as Bellocq.
Here in New Orleans, we still have a speakeasy where at any moment you feel Bellocq could materialize. I imagine voices would dull to a purr as people watched him shuffle in to sit in the corner to nurse a drink and fumble awkwardly with a camera. On the skirt of Lee Circle there is a bar that dons his name, plush with velvet armchairs, soft curtains, and candles at every table. When I was there, on a Thursday night, it was an intimate tête-à-tête with the expert mixologist barkeep, who really helped set the atmosphere for my friend and me. In allegiance with the age, I ordered a Sazerac (a New Orleans invention I’ve always resented, but for the first time ever: thoroughly enjoyed) and the colonial punch of the day, handcrafted by our bartender, Matt. He combined cognac, and two kinds of rum, cinnamon, apricots and citrus for a punch that was reminiscent of this epoch of New Orleans history, and, perhaps more importantly, delicious to drink. He was eager to explain the drinks and their historical origins, show us a book about Bellocq, and swap cocktail recipes. While enjoying my drink, and surveying the elegance of the room, but was surprised when I noticed on the ceiling in the corner what looked like an ugly water stain from a distance, which seemed like a horrible oversight in the otherwise posh bar. However, when you get a closer look (which is exactly what our bartender Matt recommended), you’re struck with a sense of surprise. Here, I’ll admit, I’m a bit cruel. I won’t tell you what’s up there. I want to encourage everyone to check out this truly enchanting lounge for yourselves, sazerac in hand, and enjoy the whimsy of being transported back to a time of booze, illicit activity, and free flowing entertainment. Perhaps you can pay it a visit this July 6th, to celebrate (because here in New Orleans we’ll look for any excuse to do so) the start of Storyville, way back in 1987.
I’ve always had a sincere interest in how people of past generations lived, looked, and conducted themselves, especially when it came to the stories they weren’t allowed to tell us in history class. While Bellocq’s lovely ladies may not be history book approved, I think it’s a fascinating glimpse into this neglected and quickly forgotten time in New Orleans’ past. These portraits give us a cursory glimpse into the life of women that live behind curtains, veiled in mystery and sensuality. His pictures are touchstones, records of the time, and perhaps some of the only pictures inside this elusive and enigmatic industry.