Category Archives: 03 Portraiture and the archive

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]

Bibliography

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]

Images

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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Exercise 1.4 Archival Intervention

The brief:

Look through your own family archive and try to discover a series of portraits that have existed within this archive, but have never been placed together before … whichever way you wish to tackle this exercise, there must be a reason or justification for your choices. What message are you trying to get across about these portraits?

… you are physically bringing together portraits that have never been viewed as a series prior to your intervention. Therefore, you need to think really clearly about what your choices are and who you decide to select.

This exercise has been far more challenging that I thought possible.  I spent two days sifting through family photographs from both my side of the family and my husband’s. At first I thought of creating a family tree of the men in our family: my father, father-in-law, husband and two sons and I played around with some options for this. But this would be quite a big project, so I’ll shelve that for a later date. It will definitely be interesting to expand that idea.

I finally decided today to create an archive of my father. My father is going on for 91 and not in the best of health, so in a way, this is a tribute to him. It is an archive about the passing of time. I have used the photographs in their original state and not convert the two colour photos to monochrome. Ulrich Baer (2008, p. 54), in his essay, ‘Deep in the Archive’ poses the question in his opening statement “What belongs in an archive?” An historian would probably provide a very concise answer to this question. “Everything that someone does not wish to forget and everything that someone believes will hold the key to the future”, states Baer (2008, p. 54). We should bear in mind that whatever we place in an archive, be it photographs, letters, or documents, can take on a new life retroactively.

Archives bestow legitimacy and preserve certain forms of knowledge. The also transmit culturally and historically specific modes of remembrance, and they produce knowledge in their own right by rendering permanent things that fit within available and accepted modes of storage, capacity for iteration, and retrieval.

Baer (2008)

My father was born in South Africa in 1925. His mother, Lourenza, was a dedicated school teacher and taught primary school until she was about 75 years old. I have a particular fond memory of her using various teaching aids that she had created to teach my tables. I believe my grandfather, Lambertus Petrus worked in insurance. My father is the oldest of three children, all with a gap of seven years between each sibling. Both my uncles passed away in their early sixties. My father and his brothers all attended Grey College, which is the third oldest school in South Africa and can boast of many international rugby and cricketers amongst its alumni.

My father dreamt of becoming a medical doctor and went to the University of Stellenbosch to study.  However, money was very tight during the war years and he had to leave university after only one year. He then joined the Royal Dutch Shell company in South Africa, where he remained for the rest of his working life, starting out in the mailroom and ending his successful career there as Marketing Director.

The photos I have put together for this archive represent my father from the age of three through to the age of eighty-five. The first image of my father standing on a chair, aged three, is a photo that was sent to his aunt. I have no idea what the origin of the strange outfit is that he is wearing – there might be a backstory to that, I will probably never know. The following image is a group family photo featuring my father, his brothers, mother and father, taken one year after the birth of my father’s youngest brother. The third photo in the first gallery is my father proudly showing off his new born daughter (me). In the second gallery, the first photo is another group family photo (same subjects as in the second photo in the first gallery), with the inclusion of me, the first grandchild. The image in the middle of the second gallery features four generations of the Zaayman clan/descendants: my grandmother, father, step-mother, myself and my children. The final image is of my father sitting in his wheelchair in his garden gazing pensively out at the mountains in the distance.

Stood alone, these photographs are all just happy snaps and not very good quality ones at that either, but combined into a sequence they take on more depth, more context.  All but one bear the marks and wear and tear of time past. One overlooks the imperfections and pays attention to the narrative running through the series. Its a story of family, a sense of belonging, heritage and identity.  We can see the various identities that my father assumed at the stages in his life: young toddler, teenage schoolboy, new father, family man, retiree and finally an octogenarian. This archive represents life to me. The passage of time where new lives come into being, growth and the inevitable passing away of loved ones – the cycle of life – my dad’s life.

Finally Baer (2008) reminds us that “the question of what enters an archive is never as important as what will find its way back out into the light.”

Reference List

Baer, Ulrich (2008). ‘Deep in the Archive’ In: Aperture 193, Winter 2008, p. 54-58 [Online]. Available at: http://issues.aperture.org/20080404#!/54 (Accessed 2 June, 2016)