Another name I don’t know! Hurrah! Every day we learn something new about the amazing inspirational artists that have gone before us. Today’s spotlight is taken by J.E.J. Bellocq – reportedly a hideous misshapen hydrocephalic dwarf of a man that frequented prostitutes. It really does take all kinds eh?
John Ernest Joseph Bellocq was born in 1873 to a wealthy white French Creole family in the French Quarter of New Orleans, USA. 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, New Orleans’ legalized red light district.
Suffering from hydrocephalica he was a bit of a dandy in his younger years, but he lived alone and acquired a reputation for eccentricity and unfriendliness when he became older. According to acquaintances from that period, he showed little interest in anything other than photography. Another photographer who knew Bellocq commented: “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.”
Bellocq died in 1949, and was buried in Saint Louis Cemetery #3 in New Orleans. After his death, most of his negatives and prints were destroyed. However, the Storyville negatives were later found. 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. Many of the negatives were badly damaged, in part deliberately, which encouraged speculation. Many of the faces had been scraped out; whether this was done by Bellocq, his Jesuit priest brother who inherited them after his death or someone else is unknown. Bellocq is the most likely candidate, since the damage was done while the emulsion was still wet.
After several decades, they were purchased by a young photographer, Lee Friedlander. In 1970, a show of Friedlander’s posthumous prints on gold tone printing out paper from Bellocq’s 8″ x 10″ glass negatives were mounted by curator John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. A selection of the photographs was also published concurrently in the book, Storyville Portraits. 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. They are typical professional photographs of the day, such as portraits, copy work for the Louisiana State Museum, and local views, yet few if any Storyville portraits printed by Bellocq’s hand exist. A number of early posthumous prints from Bellocq’s negatives by photographer Dan Leyrer have also surfaced and the works of Joel Peter Witkin, one of my personal favorite photographers, has clearly been inspired by Bellocq’s imagery.
These images also come to inspire novels, poems and films, most notably Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, in which Bellocq was played by Keith Carradine. He also appears in Michael Ondaatje’s novel Coming Through Slaughter and is a protagonist in Peter Everett’s novel Bellocq’s Women. He is also a minor character in David Fulmer’s novel Chasing the Devil’s Tail. There are several collections of poems, Brooke Bergan’s Storyville: A Hidden Mirror and Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, inspired mainly by the women in the images.
My favourite images: