Ernest J. Bellocq is a mysterious figure in photography, whose intimate and empathetic photographs of prostitutes in New Orleans’ Storyville were not brought to light until years after his death.
Bellocq was born in 1873 to an aristocratic, white Creole family with French roots. He was classically educated at the College of the Immaculate Conception.
In his youth, Bellocq restlessly moved from one job to another. He was obsessed with photography, which in the day was not respected as a fine art, but he made a name for himself as an amateur by 1898. That year, one block from his home opened Storyville. In this 16-block district just off the French Quarter, prostitution and all manner of vice were legalized in a reformer’s effort to concentrate the sin of the city in one hotbed.
After Bellocq’s mother died and his brother Leo left to pursue a vocation as a Jesuit priest, Bellocq took to the streets as a commercial photographer of shipyards, city landmarks, and machinery. He was somewhat of a dandy, dressing in monogrammed jewelry and a red neckerchief or tie, and known for a high staccato accent, a mincing step and a habit of talking to himself.
Some combination of curiosity and lust led Bellocq on many private errands into Storyville next door, lugging his 8-by-10-inch camera. Photography in those days required patience and long exposure. But the women in Bellocq’s photographs are relaxed, trusting. Some are photographed nude, but others have dressed themselves in elaborate costumes or are casually posed in everyday settings. Bellocq even took the time to accompany and photograph a girl visiting a friend at the isolation hospital, which treated STDs. His interest thus ran deeper than mere salaciousness; his portraits show these prostitutes as complete human beings. Beyond the empathy of the photographs, some of the girls’ faces have been scratched out shortly after development, and the backgrounds of the photos show couches in front of doors, a telephone wire wound around a lock, as if he were concerned about someone peeking in. Though his hasty backdrops suggest he may have intended to alter the images, to soften and idealize them in imitation of the saccharine romantic pictures hung around his own room, he never went through with it. Therefore, his photographs remain unflinchingly honest, complex and modern, not at all in the vein of contemporary pornographic pieces. He is also supposed to have also infiltrated and photographed New Orleans’ Chinatown in a similar manner to Storyville, but these photographs are lost.
The scraps of information available about the real Bellocq, highlighting his genuine eccentricity, have been spun into a poetic portrait of a dwarfed, hunchback, insane hydrocephalic man lurking around the New Orleans nightlife like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. A truer story is that Bellocq faded into senile obscurity and spent his waning days in every camera shop he could walk to. At age 76, he fell down his apartment steps and, after a week in the hospital attended by his brother Leo, died. His few shabby belongings passed to his brother, and his photographs, which were considered pornographic, were eventually stashed in a decaying bathroom. In 1967, after the sexual revolution of the 60s and the rise in photography as an art form, photographer Lee Friedlander discovered and was struck by the images. He printed them and, twenty years after Bellocq’s death, he was given a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, and this enigmatic private project by an unknown young photographer gained worldwide attention.
American Suburb X, https://americansuburbx.com/2011/02/e-j-bellocq-the-last-days-of-ernest-j-bellocq.html
Picto NY, https://pictony.com/e-j-bellocqs-intimate-storyville-portraits/
Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-portrait-of-sensitivity-a-photographer-in-storyville-new-orleans-forgotten-burlesque-quarter-166324443/