E. J. Bellocq – Storyville Portraits

E. J. Bellocq was a New Orleanian commercial photographer who photographed for the local shipyards. Bellocq’s work only became known when Lee Friedlander bought 89 gelatin dry plate negatives from an antique dealer and had them printed. The negatives were portraits of prostitutes from Storyville, New Orleans. Bellocq was a misshapen man, according to rumours (Bowman, 2002) he had a pyramid shaped head and was dwarfish in stature. He was given the nickname “papa” because of his heavy French accent.

Bellocq’s work was exhibited with Lee Friedlander’s collection alongside that of Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand in the New Objects Exhibition at MOMA. John Szarkowski states in a MOMA press release of 1970 that “we are persuaded that he [Bellocq] had knowledge of other human beings.” Szarkowski further speculates that Bellocq made this body of work as a result of personal adventure and not for assignment, stating that the photographs “possess a sense of leisure in the making and a variety of conception not typical of photographic jobs done at the customer’s request.” Bowman (2002) contends that it was because of Bellocq’s odd appearance that the prostitutes felt comfortable posing for him. They themselves were social outcasts.

Seated Storyville Woman by E. J. Bellocq
Seated Storyville Woman by E. J. Bellocq

For the most part, the women appear relaxed and at ease in front of the photographer, their attitudes contrasting sharply with the controversial subject of the “fallen women” of that era (Sontag).

That they are part of a series is what gives the photographs their integrity, their depth, their meaning. Each individual picture is informed by the meaning that attaches to the whole group.

Sontag, Susan

E. J. Bellocq, Untitled, c. 1912 © Estate of E. J. Bellocq/Lee Friedlander
E. J. Bellocq, Untitled, c. 1912
© Estate of E. J. Bellocq/Lee Friedlander

It is clear that many of the women regarded the posing as something fun to do. Some of the portraits are more formal, taken with a backdrop, but in a rather amateurish style, as in one photograph washing on a line is seen off to the side of the backdrop. In some of the photos, women pose with their dogs, as seen above. In others they are photographed in very formal clothing or none at all. Sontag concludes her remarks on Bellocq’s oevre stating that she admires the beauty and forthright presence of many of the women, photographed in homely circumstances that affirm both sensuality and domestic case, and the tangibleness of their vanished world. How touching, good natured, and respectful these pictures are.” I am inclined to agree with her. There is nothing lewd about Bellocq’s photographs at all, even those where the women are posed nude.

Kozloff (2007) states that “the animation of their faces and his [Bellocq’s] positive tone have a straightforwardness about them, innocent of judgement on the low-budget setting – at once a home and a place of business.” In his inexperience with professional salon photography Bellocq unconsciously smooths away the boundaries between the social identity of the prostitute and the person, revealing an intimacy between the sitter and the photographer, which is quite discernible to the viewer.

Reference List

Bowman, David (2002). Strange and Vanished Flesh [online]. Salon. Available at: http://www.salon.com/2002/01/25/bellocq/ [Accessed 6 June, 2016]

Kozloff, M. (2007) the Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press

Sontag, Susan (n.d.) Text from Susan Sontag’s introduction to Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans [online] Masters of Photography | E.J. Bellocq. Available at: http://www.masters-of-photography.com/B/bellocq/bellocq_articles2.html [Accessed 6 June, 2016]

The Museum of Modern Art (1970). E. J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits [online] Press Release. Available at: https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/4550/releases/MOMA_1970_July-December_0070_129.pdf?2010 [Accessed 6 June, 2016]


Rule, Amy. “Bellocq, E. J..” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Available at: <http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T007703> [Accessed 6 June, 2016]


Bellocq, E.J. Seated Storyville Woman [online] [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seated_Storyville_Woman_Bellocq.jpg [Accessed 6 June, 2016]

Bellocq, E.J. (1912). Untitled [online] © Estate of E. J. Bellocq/Lee Friedlander. Available at: http://www.masters-of-photography.com/B/bellocq/bellocq_photo2_full.html [Accessed 6 June, 2016]


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