Bellocq’s Storyville: New Orleans at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Although he was wealthy from a family inheritance and considered a part of the elite of New Orleans, E.J. Bellocq made his living mostly by taking photographic records of landmarks, ships and machinery for local companies. He gained posthumous fame, however, for his personal photographs of the hidden underside of local life, notably the prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans’ legalized red light district. Although it is possible that these images were made for commercial purposes—photographs of prostitutes were included in Blue Books, advertisements created by the city’s brothels—it seems more likely that Bellocq personally knew the women in his photographs, given their ease with the camera and their willingness to pose and sometimes even feign for it. Upon his death in 1949, Bellocq’s possessions, along with the disreputable photographs, were given to his brother, Leon, a Jesuit priest. When the photographs were discovered years later, many of the women’s faces had been scratched out. Initially it was speculated that Leon scratched the photos upon receiving them, but this is no longer believed since the damage was done in the emulsion rather than on the glass plate negatives.
The district of Storyville was created in 1897 when Alderman Sidney Story decided that the expansion of brothels in New Orleans needed to stop because they drove down building and family values. Knowing full well that banning prostitution would be ineffective, Story set out to regulate it. He created a thirty-five block area in which prostitution was legal, and banned it in the rest of the city. This area quickly became one of the most scandalous red-light districts in the United States, and much to the ire of Alderman Story, came to bear his name.
Storyville and Bellocq himself, have become infamous symbols of New Orleans at the turn of the century. Several movies, including the 1992 film, Storyville, and the 1978 film starring Brooke Shields and Susan Sarandon, Pretty Baby, focus on this particularly notorious and fascinating part of New Orleans’ history. This photograph by Bellocq will be on display until April 8, 2012 in the exhibition To What Purpose? Photography as Art and Documentary at Weatherspoon Art Museum.
Post written by Stephanie Krysiak, a second year History Master’s student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Thanks to Elaine Gustafson, Curator of Collections, Weatherspoon Art Museum.