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E. J. Bellocq, Storyville Portrait, ca. 1912, printing-out-paper print, 10 × 8".

E. J. Bellocq, Storyville Portrait, ca. 1912, printing-out-paper print, 10 × 8".

E. J. Bellocq

Legend and rumor grow like weeds around the enigmatic photographer E. J. Bellocq (1873–1949). His beat was Storyville in New Orleans, a locale that spawns the tallest tales. The photo don John Szarkowski once described him as a “hydrocephalic semi-dwarf”; he was also said to be an outcast, one with a cone-shaped head and a high-pitched voice. He loved “high-class” brothels and made what Nan Goldin has called “among the most profound and beautiful portraits of prostitutes ever taken.” Bellocq captured these women circa 1912—in their gaudy rooms or outdoors, sometimes tenderly holding a pet—with an eight-by-ten-inch view camera, which he trained on them with careful attention. We don’t know his intentions, what his relationship to the sex workers was, or if the series was part of a larger project. None of his other photographs survive.

Eighty-nine of Bellocq’s glass-plate negatives were found in a desk drawer after he died. In 1966, they landed in the hands of Lee Friedlander, who meticulously printed them using a turn-of-the-century process, P.O.P. (printing-out paper). Friedlander’s evangelizing of the work led to a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970, and a rollicking oral history in the catalogue birthed the portrait of Bellocq as a malformed malcontent: “His sitdown place was very wide”; “he waddled a little bit like a duck. And he had this terrific head”; “he had been razzed so much in his life that he just didn’t have any trust in people left.” In her 1997 Artforum article, “Bellocq Époque” Goldin calls the MoMA catalogue’s mythos into question. For one, Bellocq may have been handsome, or, according to hospital records, “a normal, well-developed male,” not unlike Keith Carradine, who played Bellocq in Louis Malle’s 1978 movie Pretty Baby

If Bellocq didn’t trust anyone, it seems many of his subjects trusted him. Unlike other male photographers of the female form, he doesn’t seem only ravenous for skin. While you can detect some wariness in the women—just what you’d expect from the john-with-a-camera dynamic—most seem game to pose. At a recent show at Deborah Bell Photographs, where thirty-six of the Friedlander-printed Storyville portraits were displayed, the pictures were bright and crisp, the mood cheerful, as if gallerist and viewer were collaborating on a bit of anodyne bawdy fun. In one of the exhibition’s memorable shots, a girl with a cigarette sits in a straight-backed chair, wearing a frilly gown that falls off the shoulders just so. Photos of nude women in life-drawing poses hang on the flowered wall behind her, and the room’s furnishings are fake-ornate. She looks at the camera with a frank expression colored by amusement, as if to say, “Can you believe this place?,” and has the unmistakable bearing of someone on break. Sex work is work and, for the moment at least, she’s won a bit of peace and quiet.

It would be easy to call the collection a winning, gently risqué slice of lost Americana. Many of the pictures are just that, but they’re not the whole truth. The Storyville mystique glosses over the seedier particulars of hardship and exploitation, and some of the women look like they could have been teenagers (in Storyville at the time, brothels were legal, implying that the girls were probably not considered underage). At least two of the Storyville portraits betray covert, after-the-fact malice: In these pictures, someone has furiously damaged the glass negative, scribbling or blacking out the woman’s face. Again, speculation abounds. Goldin’s research indicates that Bellocq’s brother—a priest—or else a lover or the artist himself could have been the vandal. Goldin can’t bring herself to believe that Bellocq would mutilate his own art. I suspect it was him—who else had sustained access to his most precious possession? If Bellocq defaced the images, did he do so to protect the women’s anonymity, or was the gesture compulsively cruel and vindictive? To understand the man and his work, we’d need to know more. It’s a serious disservice to simply print the legend.