Wednesday, 12 March 2014

E J Bellocq - The Storyville Portraits

The Storyville Portraits are a fascinating insight into the world of New Orleans prostitution in the early 1900s. The Storyville district was designated as a legalised area for 'whorehouses' as they were usually called. A place where sex workers were gathered together usually with a madam in control of the house and earnings. The term 'whorehouses' sounds quaint to my ears and conjures up images of gaudy, tasselled, interiors with cushions and silk scarves draped over table lamps - in other words, the scenes usually depicted in TV and film. Storyville survived for about twenty years contributing much wealth to the local economy. Eventually, changing public morality and the US Navy (stationed nearby and preparing itself for the First World War) began to campaign for legalised prostitution in the district to be shutdown.

The portraits are printed from around 89 glass plate negatives discovered decades after the death of the photographer, E J Bellocq. They had mostly been kept secret and shown only to a few close friends until the plates were discovered in the drawer of a desk belonging to Bellocq. Photographer, Lee Friedlander, bought the plates from a local art dealer and printed up many of the negatives onto gold tone printing out paper. The images were finally exhibited for the world to see in the 1970s at the Museum of Modern Art. The portraits comprise of women posed nude, partly and fully clothed, or sometimes naked except for facial masks. The backgrounds are usually bedrooms or parlours (now mostly attributed to Lulu White's Mahogany Hall). The interiors are just like I imagined them to be - patterned rugs, pictures in heavy frames, fancy wallpaper and carved mirrors over mantelpieces. I can only guess at the rich colours of the interiors.

What is intriguing about the images is the relaxed manner in which the subjects pose for the camera. They lean against furniture, recline on couches or stand on temporary backdrops and appear to be completely at ease with the photographer. Bellocq was known to be a frequent visitor to the Storyville brothels although (according to the testament of one of the surviving women) apparently never for sex. It has been suggested that the images may have been intended for commercial use in one of the "Blue Books" that were in circulation at the time - a sort of directory of Storyville brothels and their occupants. This has never been proven though and the images remained hidden until after Bellocq's death.

An added mystery to the Storyville portraits is that some of the faces of the women have been scratched out. Stories had arisen that Bellocq's brother, a Jesuit priest, had done this upon finding the plates. But, if done for reasons of morality, then why scratch the faces and not the naked body? Had one of the women themselves scratched them to obscure their identity at a later stage in their life? Friedlander claims that tests on the plates show that the scratching must have occurred when they were still wet. But, how rigorous in his testing method was Friedlander? His claims could be just one of many that surround the Storyville portraits and, over time, have proven to be incorrect. Did Bellocq scratch the plates for jealous reasons? Had he quarrelled with one of the women?  One of them is featured both scratched and untouched on different plates and for me the logical conclusion is that at some point in time a "selection" of the plates were discovered and scratched for whatever reason - by persons unknown. Maybe even someone connected to Bellocq in a less melodramatic manner than his religious brother; A housekeeper? I guess we will never know the answer to the scratching but it does raise again the issue of the representation of women in photography. For now though the mystery and intrigue around the Storyville portraits remains intact and somehow adds to their allure.

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