E.J. Bellocq

Storyville Portrait, ca. 1912
printing-out paper, gold toned, 10 x 8 inches (sheet)

E.J. Bellocq remains an ambiguous figure in history. Following his death in 1949, eighty-nine glass plate negatives of portraits of female prostitutes from Storyville, New Orleans’s semi-legal red-light district, were found in his desk. All of the images were taken circa 1912, and depict with surprising tenderness fashionable dressed and nude women in a brothel’s interior and outdoor spaces. “The pictures themselves suggest that they were not made on assignment, but as a personal adventure,” John Szarkowski wrote in a 1970 book that  accompanied an exhibition of the photographs at the Museum of Modern Art. “They possess a sense of leisure in the making,” which suggested that “Bellocq photographed the women of Storyville because he found them irresistibly compelling,” Szarkowski noted. Nan Goldin, in an essay in Artforum, called the images “among the most profound and beautiful portraits of prostitutes ever taken.”

Storyville Portrait, ca. 1912
printing out paper, gold-toned, 10 x 8 inches (image & sheet) [25.4 x 20.3 cm]

Bellocq worked as a commercial photographer in New Orleans, but little is known about his life. The Storyville photographs are his only surviving images, and came to prominence through the work of Lee Friedlander, who first saw the original glass plates in 1958, when they were owned by New Orleans art dealer Larry Borenstein. Friedlander purchased them from him in 1966, and made contact prints of the 8 x 10 negatives using the same gold toned printing-out paper that Bellocq used in his rare prints. He is credited with salvaging and promoting the work, bringing it to the attention of curators and editors, including Szarkowski, who curated MoMA’s exhibition of 34 prints. In addition to the book E. J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits, which accompanied the exhibition, an expanded version of the book was published in 1996, titled Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans. It included 52 photographs and a new introduction by Susan Sontag.

In addition to the MoMA exhibition, Bellocq’s photographs have been featured in solo exhibitions at the New Orleans Museum of Art and the International Center of Photography, New York. His work is in the collection of institutions including the Denver Art Museum; International Center of Photography, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.

Storyville Portrait, ca. 1912
printing-out paper, gold toned, 8 x 10 inches (sheet)
Storyville Portrait, ca. 1912
printing-out paper, gold toned, 10 x 8 inches (sheet)