E. J. Bellocq  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ernest Joseph Bellocq (1873–3 October 1949) was an American photographer who worked in New Orleans during the early 20th century. Bellocq is remembered for his haunting photographs of the prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans' legalized red light district. These have inspired novels, poems and films, most notably in the 1978 film Pretty Baby by Louis Malle and the photography of Joel-Peter Witkin.

He is known for such photos as Untitled (masked woman on couch).



Bellocq was born in a wealthy white Creole family in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He became known locally as an amateur photographer before setting himself up as a professional, making his living mostly by taking photographic records of landmarks and of ships and machinery for local companies. However, he also took personal photographs of the hidden side of local life, notably the opium dens in Chinatown and the prostitutes of Storyville. These were only known to a small number of his acquaintances. In the latter part of his life, he lived alone and acquired a reputation for eccentricity and unfriendliness. According to people who knew him in late life, he showed little interest in anything other than photography. In his younger days, however, he seems to have been something of a dandy.

Bellocq died in 1949 and was buried in Saint Louis Cemetery in New Orleans.

After his death, most of his negatives and prints were destroyed. However, the Storyville negatives were later found concealed in a sofa. In 1971, a selection of the photographs were published in a book entitled Storyville Portraits. They had been made into distinctive prints by Lee Friedlander, using the whole of the glass negatives. These photographs were immediately acclaimed for their unique poignancy and beauty.

A more extensive collection of Friedlander's prints, entitled Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, was published in 1996.

In recent times, a significant number of prints from Bellocq's own studio have come to light, these are typical professional photographs of the day, such as portraits and local views.

The Storyville Photographs

All the photographs are portraits of individual women. Some are nude, some dressed respectably, others posed as if acting a mysterious narrative. Many of the negatives were badly damaged, in part deliberately. This encouraged speculation about the reasons why they had been taken and later violated. Many of the faces had been scraped out; whether this was done by E. J. Bellocq himself, his Jesuit priest brother who inherited them after E. J.'s death, or someone else is unknown. However Bellocq himself is the most likely candidate, since the damage was done while the emulsion was still wet. In a few photographs the women wore masks. It is likely that the faces were scraped out for the same reason that masks were used - to protect the identities of the women.

Some prints made by Bellocq himself have since surfaced. These are far more conventional than the full-negative prints made by Friedlander.

The influence of Bellocq's violated negatives and bodies can be seen in the work of the photographer Joel-Peter Witkin.

Bellocq in literature and film

The mysteries surrounding Bellocq have inspired several fictional versions of his life, notably the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby, in which Bellocq was played by Keith Carradine. He is also a character in Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter and the central figure in Peter Everett's novel Bellocq's Women. All these works take considerable creative liberty, portraying a fictional Bellocq in many ways contrary to the known facts of his life and personality.

The photographs have also inspired imaginative literature about the women depicted in them. This includes several collections of poems, notably Brooke Bergan's Storyville: A Hidden Mirror and Natasha Trethewey's Bellocq's Ophelia.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "E. J. Bellocq" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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