Photographer E. J. Bellocq was best known for his images of the women of New Orleans’ red light district, Storyville. While his Storyville work remained secret during his professional life, the project gained international acclaim after a selection of photographs were discovered following his death in 1949.
An eccentric loner, the mysteries surrounding Bellocq’s life and his uncovered photographs of prostitutes inspired books, poems and fictional accounts of his life. In the 1978 film, Pretty Baby, Brooke Shields played the 12-year old daughter of one of Bellocq’s prostitute subjects during the height of New Orleans’ red light district. Keith Carradine stared as Bellocq.
E.J. Bellocq’s Early Life: Storyville
Born John Ernest Joseph Bellocq (1873) to wealthy and aristocratic, white Creole parents, E.J. Bellocq grew up in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family lived close to the French Opera House, where even school children regularly attended performances in formal dress. Bellocq attended the College of the Immaculate Conception and worked at his father’s wholesale firm. He became obsessed with photography, making a living as an amateur photographer taking photos of landmarks, ships and machinery.
By 1898, he gained recognition as one of the city’s most popular and talented amateur photographers. This was the same year the red light district, Storyville, opened for business. When Bellocq’s mother had died and his brother went away to study for the priesthood in 1902, Bellocq turned his full concentration on his photography. At this point, he ventured into the Storyville district.
Bellocq’s Journey from Amateur to Professional Photographer
He soon became a professional photographer, opening a studio in downtown New Orleans. Bellocq also worked as an industrial photographer during World War II for shipbuilding companies.
In his younger days, Bellocq was known for his taste in dress and often wore a red neckerchief and monogrammed jewelry. Over time, he became known an unfriendly loner. At his death at the age 76 from cerebral arteriosclerosis, diabetes, obesity and old age, stories surfaced describing him as insane, senile, hunchbacked and grotesque. Most of his negatives and prints, considered pornographic and illegal at the time, were destroyed.
While he didn’t leave a will, many believe that his brother Leo, a notary and a witness may have found his 8 x 10 inch negative plates, with the images of the Storyville women, in his apartment.
The negatives later surfaced in an antique shop, eventually falling into the hands of photographer Lee Friedlander in 1967. Friedlander made prints from the glass plates and showcased them in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. A book of these photos, entitled Storyville Portraits, was published one year later.
Bellocq’s photographs won immediate acclaim for their moving, touching beauty. His images were all of women, both dressed and nude. While some of his subjects wore masks hiding their eyes and faces, others wore lockets.
Unfortunately, many of these negatives were badly damaged, with the faces scratched off. Whether Bellocq did this himself, or whether the images were altered after his death, remains a mystery.
Bellocq is buried in Saint Louis Cemetery #3 in New Orleans, two miles from the French Quarter.
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