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E.J. Bellocq (1873-1949)E.J. Bellocq

Documentary, Landscape, Photojournalism

Biography: Nobody knows much about E. J. Bellocq, an unexceptional commercial photographer who lived in New Orleans shortly after the turn of the century. He took a lot of pictures of boats to pay the rent. He was an odd, indrawn, misshapen man, hydrocephalic and a dwarf. According to another photographer who knew Bellocq, "he had a terrific [French] accent, spoke in a high-pitched voice, staccato-like, and when he got excited he sounded like an angry squirrel."

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 -- 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.

More on E.J. Bellocq:

Hooker Heroes - The Models of Storyville
Several Photographs by E.J. Bellocq

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