bellocq's women
A good photographic portrait is the result of a successful collaboration between the photographer and the sitter. The remarkable individuality of Bellocq's portraits is the individuality of his subjects. With Bellocq's help. the women have realized themselves in pictures.

Though many are nudes, Bellocq's portraits reveal a simple frankness and respect for his subjects that runs completely counter to pornography. They number among the finest works of photographic art this country has produced, and are the only true-to-life visual record of this extraordinary part of American history.

Down to Earth Photos of Down to Earth Women: There is nothing particularly glamorous or titillating about Bellocq's photographs and, indeed, nothing particularly glamorous or titillating about the women who are its subjects. This is precisely what makes the photos so extraordinary. We see the women of Storyville, not all dolled up for their clients, but simply at home, being themselves. We see a variety of women -- younger, older, heavier, thinner, clothed, unclothed, seductive, distant, joyous, troubled, relaxed in front of the camera, decidedly ill-at-ease. We see the uninflated, yet powerful, presence of a group of women who, simply enough, worked as prostitutes in New Orleans shortly before World War I. We see these women photographed honestly and respectfully, appreciated for simply being who they are, notably separate from the glamorization and vilification, the whore stigma, through which prostitutes are constantly distorted by mainstream culture.
A woman lies on an ironing board set up behind her house, dressed in a loose shirt, knickers, and dark stockings, kicking her heels while playing with her miniature dog. Two women sit on a flowered rug, sharing a bottle of wine and playing cards. A pretty woman sits in her window, nude and relaxed, smiling at the camera. A woman sits quietly in a plain wooden chair against a rumpled, makeshift backdrop, her smock off her shoulders, her hands tucked protectively under her arms, looking thoughtfully off to one side.
The surroundings in the photos are generally meager, even dismal -- plain rooms with flowered wallpapers, sometimes minimally decorated with college pennants or small mementos. The quality of the photographic plates reinforces the mood. Many are scratched, peeling, stained, or broken. Some have sections that are missing entirely. In most of the nude photographs, the women's faces have been crudely, almost violently, scratched away entirely -- (see Leon Bellocq) perhaps by Bellocq himself, perhaps to protect their identities. And yet there is a basic kind of grounded sensuality that the women in these photos convey, quite different from the affectedly mirthful conventions of the classic pinup or the coy French postcard. It is the sensuality of women at ease with themselves and with the sexuality of their bodies, an ease that was hardly typical of women of their time.

Bellocq's portraits show the women in various poses and degrees of undress, comfortable with their nudity and at ease in front of the camera; a few appear fully clothed, showing off their finest lace dresses and favorite pets. None of the photographs depict sexual acts or even suggest the presence of a man other than the photographer, whose pictures convey respect rather than voyeurism.

E.J. Bellocq was a successful commercial photographer in New Orleans for several decades. He is best known, however, for his private photographs of prostitutes in the legal brothels of New Orleans' Storyville red light district. Mostly taken inside the brothels, these portraits have a remarkably relaxed, intimate feel. After Bellocq's death in 1949, these photographs remained unknown for years before being discovered, purchased, restored and printed by photographer Lee Friedlander. Bellocq also reportedly photographed scenes inside the opium dens of New Orleans' Chinatown, but unfortunately none of this work survives.

Storyville, New Orleans, Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District (
by Al Rose
Media Paperback
Manufacturer University of Alabama Press
The best source of information I have found.

A remarkable collection of photographs by E.J. Bellocq ( depicting Storyville prostitutes was published in 1971 under the title Storyville Portraits.

The Girl from Storyville
by Frank Yerby
Media Hardcover
Manufacturer: Bantam Dell Pub Group
A disturbing and haunting look at a young girl's life; how she finds herself in Storyville and the lasting effect on her life. Only Frank Yerby could write a Novel of this depth and perception. Hard to find; out of print. I have a First Edition (from my late Mother's extensive library.) Used copies can be found on Amazon and Ebay.

Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans
by E.J. Bellocq, Susan Sontag, John Szarkowski
Media Hardcover
Manufacturer Random House Inc

The Last Days of Ernest J. Bellocq
by Rex Rose
(Exquisite Corpse - Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life)


Hosted by