Posh and Tawdry: Inventing and Rethinking E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville Portraits

exposure magazine
Sep 29, 2017 · 18 min read

by: Christian Waguespack

Sometime during the 1910s, an obscure commercial photographer made a series of portraits of women who worked as prostitutes in Storyville — New Orleans’s notorious red-light district. How this small suit of environmental portraits of unnamed women, created by a photographer who is otherwise unknown, came into the canon of the history of photography is an eccentric tale, though one not always told factually.

By E. J. Bellocq, before 1918, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3205177

What do we know for sure? Storyville was sanctioned as a legal district for prostitution from 1897 until the U.S. Navy shut it down in 1917. Eighty-nine 8x10 glass plate negatives were all that remained of E.J. Bellocq’s photographic project. After his death in 1949, the negatives were discovered in a desk drawer and sold to a local antiques dealer. We do not know if these eighty-nine plates constitute the entirety of the photographs Bellocq took in Storyville or if they are only a portion of a larger body of images. The plates continued to change hands until they were purchased by photographer Lee Friedlander in 1966. Back in New York, Friedlander shared the negatives with his friend John Szarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Szarkowski was intrigued by the photographs and decided to present them in a book and exhibition at MOMA.

E.J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits opened at the museum in 1970 with a selection of 34 photographs that Friedlander printed from Bellocq’s old negatives. Szarkowski’s text for the show and the publication — part fact, part fiction — established a long-unexamined mythology that established many conventionally held assumptions about Bellocq’s life and work. This exhibition was one of the first times that the Storyville Portraits — made more than a half century earlier — were brought to the attention to the arts community. The circumstances surrounding the modern reintroduction of this body of images is what I am most concerned with in this article.

At the time of their discovery, these were among the only remaining photographs of Storyville prostitutes depicted within their working context. After Storyville was shut down, the city of New Orleans attempted to clean up its tawdry history by eliminating the remaining traces of the district. Among the items lost in this cleansing of New Orleans’s torrid past were most vintage prints of the Storyville Portraits and because of this, most all of the images we have today are the reprints made by Lee Friedlander.

By E. J. Bellocq, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3802181

Bellocq’s commercial background, as well as their similarities with the remaining visual culture of Storyville, suggest that these images were made as advertisements for sex and liquor, and were more informed by the economic demands for erotic imagery and the marketing of prostitution as opposed to being a personal project executed via the creative eye of Bellocq as an artist. It is worth mentioning that Bellocq’s photographs weren’t the only portraits of prostitutes made in Storyville at the time. An enormous part of the district’s visual culture consisted of photographs advertising the working women of the tenderloin. When asked if she remembered any such pictures being taken by other photographers, a woman named Adele, who worked as a prostitute in Storyville and was the subject of several of the Storyville portraits said, “There where so many dirty pictures taken, I don’t know why they’re so scarce now.” Photographs like these were not only reproduced in marketing material like Blue Books (illustrated guidebooks to the district’s brothels and saloons), but were also displayed in bars and the backrooms around Storyville in order to encourage men visiting the district to venture from the bars to the brothels. Through this type of photography, Storyville patrons were bombarded with advertisements featuring highly sexualized and ‘available’ women at every turn. Given that we know that Bellocq was by profession a commercial photographer, and that Storyville was flooded with such photographs that were being used as advertisements, there is no reason to think that Storyville Portraits were not also made on assignment, possibly commissioned by the women themselves, to market prostitution in the district.

By Ernest J. Bellocq, print by Dan Leyrer from original glass negative, via [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17650121

But here I would like to explore what can be learned by focusing our attention on how these pictures have been situated and re-contextualized in the second half of the 20th century.

REDISCOVERY

Though historical analysis would suggest that these photographs were made as commercial advertisements as mentioned above, during their rediscovery in the 1960s, Szarkowski constructed a very different story for these pictures. Storyville Portraits was not the first MoMA exhibition to feature one or more of Bellocq’s Storyville pictures, but in offering Bellocq his own posthumous retrospective, Szarkowski cemented his place in the canon of photo-history¹. In the text for the show and its catalogue, Szarkowski argued that, “…the pictures themselves suggest that they were not made on assignment but as a personal adventure. It is more likely that Bellocq photographed the women of Storyville because he found them irresistibly compelling.”² Szarkowski’s new narrative suggested that the Storyville Portraits were a personal artistic project for Bellocq, and it is this story that still informs many readings of Bellocq’s photographs today.³ The question remains: where did Szarkowski get this idea? While the display of vernacular images in the context of an art museum is not rare, constructing a narrative meaning for their existence is problematic without a firm understanding of the historical conditions in which they were produced. I am particularly interested in the power exercised from Szarkowski’s curatorial influence on the images, and the transformative effect that he had on the way that these pictures were read for decades after this exhibition.

Storyville Portraits was accompanied by a catalogue that included an introduction by Szarkowski and an interview that he compiled from various statements by people who knew Bellocq during his lifetime.⁴ This interview was actually a constructed text put together by Szarkowski himself, and heavily edited to reflect his interpretation of the Storyville Portraits.⁵ Yet to this day, this ten-and-a-half pages of cut-and-paste dialogue serves as the primary source of contextual information — and misinformation — about Bellocq’s life and work. Szarkowski’s text constructs an image of the photographer as an asexual, misshapen, hydrophilic dwarf, with a fantastic French accent and genteel manor that allegedly helped the women of Storyville feel at ease before the camera.⁶ Much of this has since been disproven by Bellocq’s medical records and a surviving photograph which both suggest that he was perfectly average looking.

The photographer E.J. Bellocq, by Unknown — The Owl, New Orleans, 1898, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14549420

When in 1996 this catalogue was reprinted, with a new introduction by Susan Sontag, many expected that new information about Bellocq and the Storyville Portraits would also be included. Unfortunately, the new catalog and essays only repackaged Szarkowksi’s original story. In her new introduction, Susan Sontag summed up the Storyville Portraits’ primary contribution to art history:

So much about these pictures affirms current taste: the low-life material; the near mythic provenance (Storyville); the informal, anti- art look which is in accord with the virtual anonymity of the photographer and the real anonymity of the sitters; and their status as objects trouvés, a gift from the past.

Sontag demonstrates that Bellocq’s photographs were not important because of anything they could tell us about their own time and history, but because they reflected more contemporary popular trends. MoMA had a strong hand in cultivating the ‘current taste’ which Bellocq’s works seemed to affirm so strongly, and the discourse that Szarkowski constructed around Bellocq’s pictures reflects the concerns of major photographers during the 60s and 70s. By examining these “current tastes’ of the late 60s we find the answer to the question regarding where Szarkowski formed the ideas that in turn informed the photographic community about Bellocq’s project for years to come: it was born out of a desire to make this historic figure conform to contemporary interests that Szarkowski was himself shaping.

NEW DOCUMENTS

Storyville Portraits came at a seminal time during Szarkowski’s career, between the 1967 New Documents exhibition and Diane Arbus’s first retrospective at the MoMA in 1972. New Documents brought together Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, three photographers who arguably came to define the aesthetic and concerns of 1960s photography. This period saw the birth and rise of the personal documentary style in photography. In the wall label for New Documents, Szarkowski wrote, “In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach to more personal ends. Their aim has not been to reform life but to know it.”⁷ Regarding Arbus, John Szarkowski wrote in the wall label of her first retrospective:

Diane Arbus’s pictures challenge the basic assumptions on which most documentary photography has been thought to rest, for they deal with private rather than social realities, with psychological rather than historical facts, with the prototypical and mythic, rather than the topical and temporal.⁸

This conceptual framework that has informed how Bellocq’s photographs have come to be understood by audiences in the 60s and 70s: as a personal artistic project, instead of the commercial commission that was their most likely point of origin. John Szarkowski wrote of Bellocq: “Seeing his pictures we are persuaded that he had knowledge of the nature of other human beings” and also insists that that the photographs were not made on assignment but as a personal exploration. Meanwhile, art critic Jonathan Green suggests that the preferred subject matter of photographers during this decade was “…the unseemly, the outcast, the dangerous, the forbidden, the exotic and the bizarre.”⁹ Thus, it is not the pictures in and of themselves which suggest their personal points of origin, but the photographic trends of the era into which the Storyville Portraits were resurrected. Without the precedent of the New Documents exhibition and its charismatic photographers, Bellocq’s insertion into the canon of the history of photography in the United States may never have happened. At the very least, we would not have viewed these photographs, or Bellocq’s biography, in the same way. Szarkowski’s overriding desire to show a personal approach to documentary photography, with Bellocq as a historical predecessor, is exemplary of the discourse that still informs our understanding of Bellocq’s life and work, even if in reality this was not the case.

By E. J. Bellocq, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10224267

While it was Lee Friedlander who discovered and advocated for the importance of the Storyville Portraits, they do not directly reference his own photographic work so much as they do another artist in the New Documents exhibition, that of Diane Arbus. Arbus was aware of Bellocq’s work, and even owned at least one of Friedlander’s reprints. In a photograph of Arbus’ collage wall, reproduced at the front of the exhibition catalogue for Diane Arbus: Revelations one of Freidlander’s reprints of a Bellocq photograph depicting a woman lying on her side on a wicker daybed is intermixed with clippings from newspapers, magazines, and books, as well as several of her own prints.¹⁰ A pronounced interest in the personal relationship between the marginalized sitter and the autonomy-granting photographer is a recurring theme in discussions of Bellocq’s photographs, and likely comes from popular critical discourse surrounding Arbus at the time. There has been a great deal of writing regarding Arbus’s relationship with her subjects, much of which was fueled by Arbus herself who was open about the intentions motivating her work.¹¹ Relevant to the comparison with Bellocq’s photos is that she took the time to establish a relationship with her sitters. Examining Arbus’s Transvestite at her birthday Party, N.Y.C, 1969 alongside one of Bellocq’s Storyville Portraits helps illustrate how this trope is played out in the personal narratives of both these photographers.

Though the title of the sitter in Arbus’s photograph is only identified as a “transvestite,” the photograph is of a sex worker named Vicki.¹² Arbus’s photograph is an interior scene in which Vicki reclines on her bed in a negligee, looking off to the side with a smile on her face, as if she is laughing. Taken inside her apartment, Vicki appears very comfortable, seemingly unselfconscious as Arbus snaps away. The relationship between Arbus and her sitters that allowed for her photographs to have such an unguarded sensibility often came from years of getting to know the people in her pictures. Arbus first met Vicki in 1966, three years before this photograph was taken. The event recorded in Arbus’s photographs is Vicki’s birthday party, and Arbus was allegedly afforded the opportunity to make this photograph because of her long friendship with the subject. The candid expression that Vicki displayed in this photograph also comes from her ease in the photographer’s presence.¹³

© E.J. Bellocq, Untitled, c.1910/ 1966, Public Domain

In Bellocq’s photograph the unidentified sitter is leaning forward in her chair, smiling exuberantly and looking straight at the camera. She is also located in an interior setting, likely an upstairs room at a Storyville brothel. The woman’s cheerful expression and the seemingly-domestic setting may, if you subscribe to Szarkowski’s reading of the Storyville Portraits, suggest that this photograph is the result of a privileged access afforded by a personal relationship between the photographer and the sitter. However, if Bellocq is working as a professional photographer, making pictures of prostitutes as advertisements, he would have easy access to these settings, particularly if the sitter was also the patron for the photograph. The interiors of the upscale Storyville brothels were designed to appear domestic, though their availability is actually semi-public. Szarkowski’s myth about Bellocq would suggest that he was given privileged access because of the relationship he built with his sitters, in the same way that Arbus would later cultivate relationships with her subjects, making for more “real” portraits of them.¹⁴

Such a sympathetic reading of Bellocq’s relationship with his sitters reflected dialogue around Arbus’s work that was popular at the same time that Bellocq’s persona was being constructed by Szarkowski. In both these instances, Bellocq and Arbus become victims of their own — self-constructed or otherwise — mythologies. The reading of these images reflects more the personal lore surrounding the photographer then what was really going on with these photographs. For Arbus, this photograph was the last time she ever saw Vicki. Though she had a handful of encounters with her over the three years they knew each other, these were superficial at best; hardly amounting to a close personal connection by any stretch of the imagination.¹⁵ In Bellocq’s case, the prescribed intimacy with his sitter is more convincingly a result of the subject’s professionalism as a sex worker than a testament to his interpersonal skills. The idea that Bellocq was the sole author of these pictures also raises important questions of agency. It is entirely possible, and indeed more likely, that the sitters themselves hired Bellocq to photograph them for the purpose of self-promotion, and that they had an active role in the construction of their own images. The narrative of Bellocq-as-artist disenfranchises the women he photographed, rendering them as only passive, voiceless objects.

In the article “The Sixties as Subject,” in American Photography, A Critical History 1945 to Present, Jonathan Green identifies the dominant themes of sixties photography as being: ruthlessness, alienation, deformity, insanity, sexuality, and obscenity” and names the icons of the sixties as: “the dwarf, the freak [and] the prostitute,…”¹⁶ With this in mind, it is easy to see how his subject matter and the personal embellishments provided by Szarkowski could render Bellocq a veritable poster child for the decade of the sixties. The fact that at the time there was so little verifiable information about Bellocq as an individual proved to be more helpful to Szarkowski in establishing his narrative as opposed to a hindrance, catalyzing his popularity and rise to canonical recognition. This dearth of information allowed him to be constructed into the ancestor that photographers (and curators) of the 1960s needed him to be.¹⁷ Green asserts that the “…archetype of the sixties was the deformed person.”¹⁸ Through Szarkowski’s reconstruction of Bellocq’s life and biography in Storyville Portraits occurred at the end of this decade, the thrill-seeking photographic community of the sixties got the archetype it needed. On Szarkowski’s authority, Bellocq’s resurrection came at the cost of historical accuracy and any real critical examination of the Storyville Portraits.

LOOKING AT THE HISTORY

This reading of Bellocq’s Storyville Portraits and its relationship to the New Documents photographers does not strip Bellocq’s images of their historical value. Nevertheless, the way they have been situated in the canon of art history has eschewed any historical significance in exchange for how they reflected the values of photographers and audiences in the 60s. To upend the decades of alternative facts presented by Szarkowski and others concerning Bellocq’s life and work, it is important to understand what these pictures meant in their original commercial context. To do so, we need to shift the attention away from the constructed meaning for these images based on biographical information about Bellocq as an author, and use the economics of Storyville as the framework for interpretation. This is not to say that Bellocq is not important in regard to how we read these images, but to simply to suggest that he was an active participant in the economy of his area in which he worked.

By Ernest J. Bellocq, New Orleans, via [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17579382

Given that Storyville’s economy was based on selling sex and alcohol, any image that would promote sex or alcohol consumption offers direct economic benefit to the district. This is illustrated in a quotation by Johnny Wigg, a musician and frequent Storyville patron:

[Pictures of Prostitutes] were so common place…. we knew all the people who [Bellocq] was taking pictures of…there was this saloon on South Rampart, and above this saloon was a little room, and in this room were thousands of dirty pictures; they look like they were made in France, men would drink downstairs, go upstairs and look at these pictures, and then run over to the District…

Wigg’s account shows how photography like Bellocq’s worked to promote prostitution in Storyville. It illustrates the inexorable link between Storyville’s unholy trinity: alcohol, money, and sex. It is practically impossible to separate these aspects of Storyville’s economy from one another. Wiggs’ testimony suggests how pornography circulated and was seen in New Orleans, and how many of Bellocq’s more risqué photographs may have historically been used. Bellocq’s prurient photographs, that today may be expected to be private, played a very public role in stimulating Storyville’s economy. In any economic system based on sex, all erotica is advertisement. Though it is commonly understood that these portraits were an artistic side project, the reality of the context suggests it is more likely that these images were made on assignment used to market Storyville business.

E. J. Bellocq, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3213595

In what is arguably Bellocq’s most famous photograph, known as the Raleigh’s Rye Girl, the woman in the photograph is wrapped with a loose fitting white top, which appears to be nothing more than a shawl draped over her body and held up somewhat precariously by her left shoulder. Covering her legs were pricy striped stockings. Storyville historian, Al Rose, in his book on Storyville history, Storyville, New Orleans, Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-light District, points out that “striped stockings were expensive and could only be afforded by the high-priced bawds of Basin Street.” On a table next to the sitter is a bottle of Raleigh Rye. The bottle of rye is placed conspicuously with the label facing forward and legible. The sitter is completely absorbed in the situation, not looking at the camera, but instead regards a shot glass she holds at face level in her right hand, contemplating how much she is about to enjoy her drink.

Given that Storyville’s economy was based on using sex to sell liquor, it is reasonable to conclude that erotic photography and liquor advertisements served the same purpose. Storyville was unique to New Orleans and the red-light district was in many ways the most recognized signifier for the city. The popularity of Raleigh Rye, coupled with the image of a prostitute situated in distinctively New Orleanian architecture firmly connects the city’s identity with vice. Rye held significant place in New Orleans’ cultural identity. In addition to being one of the premier generators of revenue in Storyville, it is also the main ingredient in the Sazerac cocktail, widely (though incorrectly) believed to be the world’s first cocktail and to this day a signature drink for New Orleans. Though both the woman and the rye are selling the city, the setting in which this image circulated, if indeed displayed around Storyville, worked to bring in revenue for both the bars and brothels. In this context, it becomes difficult to say if Bellocq’s sitter is being used to advertise the drink, or whether in fact the drink is being used to advertise her.

By E. J. Bellocq, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10224315

Asserting that these photographs were made from commercial reasons does not necessarily mean that they had no personal meaning for Bellocq. But there is no way to know what Bellocq’s relationship with the women he photographed really was, or what he thought of them. As the past few decades of looking at Bellocq’s photographs as art has shown, elevating Bellocq to the status of artist working on a personal project does not teach us anything about these photographs’ original purpose. Shifting from a biographical to a historical and economic approach opens these photographs up to a rich understanding of how they worked in their own time and place while allowing new voices, like those of the sitters themselves, room for expression.

Christian Waguespack is a PhD student at the University of Arizona, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His research focuses on 20th Century American Art, History of Film and Photography, and Museum Studies.


1. Bellocq’s photographs from Storyville were shown in previous exhibitions by Szarkowski and reproduced in his 1966 survey of the MoMA’s collection of photography. See Szarkowski, John. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: Museum of Modern Art; Distributed by Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1966.

2. Museum of Modern Art, E.J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits, 9, December 1970.

3. Ibid. https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/4550/releases/MOMA_1970_July-December_0070_129.pdf?2010.

4. Ernest James Bellocq and Lee Friedlander. Storyville Portraits: Photographs from the New Orleans Red-light District, circa 1912. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970.

5. Szarkowski notes this himself in the introduction to he original MoMA catalogue.

“The following discussion never took place as printed here. It is rather a synthesis of four long conversations recorded by Lee Friedlander in 1969, plus excerpts from a letter from Al Rose to Lee Friedlander, dated July 12, 1968. The source materials have been heavily edited, intermixed, and changed in sequence. I believe, however, that the participants’ meanings have been accurately preserved.” Museum of Modern Art, E.J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits, 9, December 1970.

6. The following except from the original MoMA catalogue shows where the characterization of Bellocq originated:

Dan: ….”My uncle and the stagehands all called him papá. Not papa now, papá, cause he was French you know and he had a terrific accent and he spoke in a high-pitched voice, staccato-like, and when he got excited he sounded like an angry squirrel. It’s true. And he talked to himself, and would go walking around with little mincing steps. And he waddled a little bit like a duck. And he had this terrific head…

Joe: It looked like you took the head and squeezed it so it popped up about this high.

Dan: What I think made it look worse than it really was, was because from the eyebrows, instead of receding like a normal person’s head, it went straight up. Now I don’t know whether it was higher than an ordinary person’s or not but it certainly looked that way.

Johnny: He had a very, very high forehead which come up to a point, and he was somewhat bald, or at least that’s the impression that I have, and he must have had some kind of brain disease.

Adele: A waterhead. You know, one of them high heads.

Museum of Modern Art, E.J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits, 9, December 1970.8.

7. Museum of Modern Art, New Documents, 28, Feb. 2013.

8. Museum of Modern Art, Diane Arbus, 6, Nov. 1972.

9. Jonathan Green, “The Sixties as Subject”, American Photography, A Critical History 1945 to Present. 119.

10. Globus, Doro. “Diane Arbus: Revelations.” 13.

11. See Diane Arbus and Marvin Israel. Diane Arbus: 40th Anniversary ed. New York: Aperture Monograph, 2011 and Diane Arbus, Diane Arbus: Revelations. New York: Random House, 2003

12. Diane Arbus and Marvin Israel. Diane Arbus: 40th Anniversary ed. New York: Aperture Monograph ;, 2011. 13–15

13. This idea that the photographer is able to gain privileged access to their sitter because of their own insider status is reflected in the discourse on Bellocq’s relation with his sitter. It is often suggested that the ‘empathetic’ quality in many of the Storyville Portraits come from the model opening up in a special way, which is often attributed to his alleged deformity. For more see Szarkowski’s E.J. Bellocq, Storyville Portraits, as well as Kozloff and Green’s “Sixties as Subject”.

14. See Szarkowski, E.J. Bellocq, Storyville Portraits, 14–15, Jonathan Green suggests this access comes from Bellcoq’s perceived deformity, “Undoubtedly, it was his physical deformity that allowed such seemingly non judgmental communication and camaraderie with the demimonde.” Green,127.

15. Diane Arbus and Marvin Israel. Diane Arbus: 40th Anniversary ed. New York: Aperture Monograph ;, 2011. 13–15

16. Green, 119.

17. Arbus, Diane Arbus, 3.

18. Ibid, 120


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