Angels of Desire – The Storyville Portraits of Ernest James Bellocq

In his own way, Bellocq consummates many love affairs. Johnny Wiggs understood this when he saw, to his amazement, that Bellocq’s prostitutes are beautiful. It is true, they are all beautiful. Beautiful innocently or tenderly or wickedly or joyfully or obscenely, but all beautiful in the sense that they are present, unique, irreplaceable, believable, receptive. Each of these pictures is the product of a successful alliance.’

 ‘A skilled photographer can photograph anything well. To do better than that he must photograph what he loves. Some love geometry; some love sunlight on mountains; some love the streets of their city. Bellocq apparently loved women, with the undiscriminating constancy of a genius. If he was in conventional terms impotent, he was in his eyes and spirit an indefatigable lover.’

John Szarkowski

In 1966, the American photographer Lee Friedlander acquired a collection of some eighty-nine old glass-plate negatives. These plates had been exposed around 1912, by a long forgotten, shadowy figure of a journeyman photographer named Ernest James Bellocq. The images were highly unusual, and of obvious interest to students of the risqué, for they had been taken in a brothel in Storyville, the celebrated red-light district of fin-de-siècle New Orleans, but they were remarkable pictures of a traditional subject rather than anything new, unconventional or startling in themselves. The genre was portraiture, the subjects were prostitutes, in varying states of dress and undress. When a representative selection of these pictures was printed, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and subsequently published in the monograph, Storyville Portraits, they made their mark almost instantly. A new name was added to the photographic canon, and awarded a surprisingly exalted position within the scheme of things.

Perhaps what was not remarkable was not this sudden elevation to the pantheon – a frequent occurrence these days as photographic archives are sifted incessantly in the search for just such neglected ‘masters’ – but the exceedingly high measure of Bellocq’s actual achievement. The images, as Susan Sontag writes, are ‘absolutely unforgettable – photography’s ultimate standard of value.’ To those who have criticised Friedlander and the Museum of Modern Art for bringing work of everyday commercial practice into the discourse of aesthetics and high art, the answer seems clear. Bellocq’s imagery demands it. We cannot help but marginalize to an extent the sociological issues permeating these pictures, highly interesting though these are, for other, even more profound qualities are immediately apparent. In under one hundred images, found in a drawer following the photographer’s death, the potentialities of photographic portraiture and the representation of women in art are redefined. With a very few others, Bellocq has become a touchstone. Over twenty-five years since that original publication, a new, even more sumptuously produced monograph has been published, with an augmented selection of images and a newly written foreword by Sontag. The new publication is most welcome, for Bellocq’s work has become essential study for any serious student of the art of photography. Also, the great rise in the interim between the volumes of women’s studies and the question of the ‘male gaze’ might help us to shed new light upon these endlessly fascinating pictures. From the outset however, two factors seem indisputable. Firstly, Bellocq’s work remains remarkable – the new pictures in no way decrease its overall impact. Indeed they only confirm it. And secondly, we seem to have learned little more about the life and career of Bellocq himself, and are no further forward in knowing the full circumstances of the pictures’ making. The personal and commercial reasons for their being must remain a matter for speculation.

Of all the fields of photographic endeavour, portraiture is arguably the most practised, and certainly the most widely consumed. It is also the most charismatic. The vicarious attraction of photography might be measured largely by its faculty to project us directly into visual contact with the physiognomy of someone at the farthest ends of the earth, or a human being who now exists only in history. That is powerful stuff indeed. For all their haunting presence, the faces of the individuals on Faiyum mummy cases, in Elizabethan miniatures, Jacobean engravings, or Renaissance oil paintings, are fictions. Whether painted by anonymous craftsmen, or by Holbein, Rembrandt, Ingres or Sargent, they are filtered through the veil of a second-hand intelligence – be it adroit or maladroit, perceptive or imperceptive, stunningly masterful or boringly mediocre. But no matter how technically inept, how lacking in considered formal qualities, a photograph must always stop us short. For it brings us into direct communication with time past, and it transcends geographical boundaries. It puts us into immediate touch with the long ago and far away, with the quick and the dead. Photography makes known the unknowable. We might make the acquaintance of the young lady whom Roger Fenton persuaded to act as an alluring Arabian odalisque in the mid eighteen-fifties, perhaps on a rainy English afternoon. We might shudder at the nervous, still defiant, handsome face of the manacled Conspirator Payne, awaiting the fate decreed for him after his part in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. We might marvel at how what appears at first glance to be a dirty yellow and brown amalgam of inchoate shapes somehow resolves itself into a wonderful trace of an impassioned Thomas Carlyle photographed by an impassioned Julia Margaret Cameron.

Prior to the advent of photography, portraiture was never anything less than a serious, sober, and calculated business. Only those with the means to pay the artist, and with leisure enough to pose, could indulge themselves in that particular vanity. Portraiture really began to flourish towards the end of the Middle Ages, with the rise of the merchant classes, for a painted surrogate of oneself was essentially the mark of a man of property Submitting oneself to this time consuming and costly affair was a natural means of certifying the fact of material good fortune and position in society, of seeking public immortality. Photography changed, or rather, added to that. Photography made it possible for someone of only modest means to possess an image of themselves. Furthermore, in terms of absolute fidelity to its subject’s physiognomy, this image could surpass with ridiculous ease the work of the most scrupulous painter. The portrait was still utilised to confer and confirm status within the peer group, but as cameras became simpler to operate, and the whole process less expensive, the means of portrait production were made universally available. One could even make one’s own image – easily, inexpensively – for one’s own personal, private delectation. Portraits were made, therefore, not only to certify public status, but to confirm the fact of individual existence. From that decisive moment, which we can note conveniently as the introduction of the box camera by Eastman Kodak in 1888, we might distinguish two distinct brands of photographic portraiture – public and private.

The attribution ‘public portrait’ can mean many things, ranging from the classic formal studio portrait to the socio-cultural study, to the casual, candid portrait made in public by the photographer-flâneur. Yet they share a common trait. The public portrait is taken, often fabricated, to present a point of view – the point of view of the photographer, certainly, but frequently a permutation of points of view, derived from photographer, sitter, editor, and even intended audience. Ultimately however, that is to say at the crucial moment, the clicking of the shutter, it is the photographer who has the final control – with or without the subject’s complicity. The private portrait – or snapshot as it is generally termed – is made usually by an intimate of the subject, with the subject’s full consent and active participation. Control, other than technical, is not an issue. The image will not be viewed outside of a closed circle of intimates, so there is no necessity to shape and present a front, or face to the world. The snapshot can be awkward, ill-composed, embarrassing, and bathetic. It can be graceful, and sometimes even beautiful. Mostly, it is just plain dull, of no possible interest to anyone beyond the sitter’s coterie. The snapshot however, almost always displays qualities such as integrity, authenticity, and truth, virtues that often elude the formal, public portrait.

The Storyville Portraits of Ernest James Bellocq exert their tremulous fascination largely because it is difficult to determine precisely whether they are private or public portraits. They combine the considered objectivity of the public portrait with the unassuming intimacy of the private portrait, a combination that seems to characterise many of the finest photographic portraits, whatever the initial circumstance of their making. In short, Bellocq’s images refer beyond the subject to social and historically pertinent matters; at the same time they seem to gaze inward and divine the subject’s psychic being. Bellocq’s sitters are the inmates, the bill of fare of a New Orleans ‘sportin’ house.’ The images are with only two exceptions, single figure, the majority of them full length figure studies with a sizeable minority head and shoulder portraits. We have been informed of the circumstances of the pictures’ taking, gathered from certain fragments of oral recollection by an ex-prostitute and a jazz musician, both of whom knew Bellocq. A study of the images themselves would seem to corroborate their statements. But the photographer himself is another matter. Their reminiscences evince the fact that Bellocq was a semi-cripple – hydrocephalic and dwarflike – a strange misshapen being with a crooked back and a head that was too large for his body. We are told that he was (not unnaturally perhaps) a shy, solitary man who liked the company of prostitutes, and spent many of his leisure hours frequenting the brothels of Storyville and opium dens of Chinatown – one social outcast seeking solace in the company of others who, for whatever reason, were also outwith conventional society. Here, we might waver a little in accepting this testimony unquestioningly, for we begin to impinge quite definitely upon the territory of popular myth, with shades of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane-Avril, of Quasimodo and Esmerelda.

The reason why Bellocq made these pictures is not known. We can only speculate. Incidentally, he is believed to have photographed in the opium dens as well as the brothels, but these images, alas, have never surfaced. Certainly, the prostitute series is out of the ordinary at the very least, but what exactly is it? The question is of interest not only to so-called contextualists, as the Storyville Portraits remain amongst the most beguiling images in the history of the photographic medium. Are they public portraits? Are they the mutated results of a professional assignment, the expression simply of a desire by the management to present a visual menu, a gallery of the delights on offer in the establishment? Or was the motive more private, more arcane? Was this a personal odyssey on the part of the photographer, an obsession we can place alongside those of Lautrec and Degas, two possibly more renowned, but no more effective chroniclers of the demi-monde? Or is there a third possibility, the most intriguing of all, and one hinted at by the unusual ease with which Bellocq’s sitters face the intimidating picture machine. Did the women themselves casually commission Bellocq to make their collective portrait?

It was not unusual, of course, to find photographs, and other kinds of print, in a brothel. Albums displaying the charms of those engaged there certainly are known.5 And visual material of a much more salacious nature was commonplace, a necessary adjunct for reviving faded or jaded appetites. The Bellocq prints that we know are most modern contact prints made from the negatives by Lee Friedlander.Friedlander, as is almost universal these days, has printed and presented the whole negative. Bellocq’s practice, however, appears to have quite different. In some of the images, for example, he eliminated unwanted clutter in the background by posing his sitters against a white sheet. A rare ‘vintage’ Bellocq print, offered at Christies New York some years ago, was trimmed drastically, indicating that he probably utilised the blank background of the sheet with the prior intention of reducing the final print down to postcard or carte-de-visite size. This was a conventional practice in the heyday of large format studio portraiture and contact printing. In the full sized images also, we catch glimpses on walls of some of the other pictures in the series, one in particular cropped and framed in an oval vignette. This would tend to indicate that the series was an official, or at least semi-official commission. Certainly, is seems clear, and quite natural that, whatever the reason for their taking, prints were given to the sitters, in a form very different from the whole negative, full frontal presentation of the knowing modernist, Freidlander. Nevertheless, despite this evidence pointing to commercial expediency, it is still difficult to dispute unequivocally the observations of John Szarkowski. He notes that the portraits do not conform totally to the standard commercial imperatives of the day. The images possess, he surmises, a strange quality, a palpable sense of ‘leisure in their making.’ They display such a variety of conception, experiment even, to suggest strongly that even if made on assignment, it would seem to have been a project of Bellocq’s own devising rather than anyone else’s, except possibly his sitters. The whole enterprise, in short, would seem to have been a labour of love, pursued primarily for its own sake.

The act of photographic portraiture can be considered an aggressive act. Susan Sontag, of course, has written extensively on this point. We speak of the ‘capture’ of the image, or ‘snatching’ a ‘shot.’ The metaphors are revealing, and hardly accidental. At the most extreme levels, as in political surveillance photography, or in the hardest core pornography, the aggression is manifest. Taking a photograph becomes an exercise of control, an arm of the apparatus of social power – and, as we have come to see, for much of its history a particular tool of the dominant gender. Even in the relatively uncharged situation of the portrait studio, a subtle form of combat is enacted, because sitter and photographer tend to have different views of the end game. These differences might be those of viewpoint, or of emphasis. They might be marginal differences, of no matter, or they might be wide, and have serious consequences. But in general, the sitter can be said to consider the construction of the self-image as the primary object of the exercise. On the other hand the photographer, if ambitious enough, will seek to objectify, puncture the subjectivity of the self-image, ‘deconstruct’ it – penetrate the self-regarding external mask to ‘reflect the soul.’ The portrait process might be compared to a tennis rally. The photographer – the aggressor – has benefit of service, trying inevitably to win the point with a swift volley, or failing that, wear the opponent down with a grinding baseline rally. Irving Penn, for example, is considered a baseline specialist. His studio sessions are said to last until his subject drops their defensive mask out of sheer fatigue, subjugated by the insistent, nagging probing of Penn’s camera. The sitter, even if confronted by a nervous neophyte with the camera, is nearly always committed to the defensive, confined to deflecting the assault, to gaining the point by stealth. Ultimately, the subject might only limit the margin of the photographer’s success, for the game is rigged. The photographer must win, unless the result be declared null and void – that is to say, if no image of worth or insight emerges from the encounter. Occasionally, the home court advantage might be overturned from the outset, when the photographer is fortunate enough to be faced with a subject of rare charismatic aspect, of sufficient celebrity or ego to dominate proceedings, with a face blessed by the gods of photography – a figure such as Colette or Giacometti, Picasso, Pound or Hepburn. Then the practitioner need do little, being utterly defeated from the outset, but in defeat earning a simple, complete, wholly unearned victory.

In the images of Bellocq, there is no sense of any combat, no sense of the photograph having been won after a struggle. There is no sense of the photographer having been there at all as mediator, these images appear almost as if they had been taken by a self-animated, unaided camera. There would seem to have been no projection of ego involved, neither those of the sitters nor that of the photographer. The objectiveness of these pictures seems absolute. And yet their warmth is palpable – unaffected, unsentimental, touching, and quite profound. The perhaps unexpected conjunction of these qualities is possibly the images’ secret – direct, even brutal honesty combined with illuming warmth. And its effect is absolutely devastating. In Bellocq we have, I believe, the most cogent and revealing group of private portraits in photographic history. Indeed, the Storyville Portraits constitute one of the few groups of private portraits that in effect could be considered a body of work in the strict sense, demanding that we consider Bellocq, as John Szarkowski states, ‘an artist: a man who saw more clearly than we do, and who discovered secrets.’

To be sure, there are other notable instances of such intimate collaboration between photographer and sitter. Alfred Stieglitz, and the long photographic affaire de coeur he conducted with Georgia O’Keefe, springs immediately to mind. More recently, one can cite Emmet Gowin, and his pictures of his spouse, Edith. Or the portraits of Jan Groover, and the family tableaux of Sally Mann. And let us not forget Lee Friedlander himself. He has made many portraits and contributed memorably himself to the genre of the nude, with images that exhibit a very different kind of intimacy and feeling from those of Bellocq, but were surely touched by the Storyville Portraits in some way. All of these differing bodies of, however, made by serious, self-styled photographic artists, are quite blatantly examples of public portraiture – each made in a private context, certainly, but clearly engineered for posterity and for plaudits. In a more analogous vein, closer to the spirit and practice of Bellocq, is what might be termed the professional ‘snapshot’, those ingenuous products of journeyman high-street portrait studios throughout the world – formula portraiture by rote and by the square foot. Occasionally, rote might be subverted by eye, but only occasionally. Michael Disfarmer, for instance, who opened a studio in Heber Springs, Arkansas, and who continued stubbornly to use glass plate negatives long after sheet film was available, is a singular and superior example of the genre. But even Disfarmer was no Bellocq. Such photographers have existed in their thousands, such images exist in their millions. They may be historically interesting, socially revealing, formally exciting, psychologically telling. They are, however, seldom fully realised, seldom the sum of all the disparate and complex virtues that might earn them the designation ‘art.’ Bellocq stands almost alone, at a level few have equalled, including many self-styled, self-conscious photographic ‘artists.’ His world was closed, and utterly private. The pictures came to light by accident, after all. They were meant to be seen by a limited number of eyes, thus are private portraits in every sense. Of all the great bodies of photographic portraiture, nearly might be characterised as public portraits which display the intimacy, grace, and authenticity of the private portrait. The Storyville Portraits, on the other hand, might be described as private portraits exhibiting the breadth of outlook, the formal invention, and the deeper levels of nuance of the best public portraits.

Bellocq’s women – and we may term them that without ironic undertone or sexist overtone – are portrayed dressed in anything from a casual déshabillée to their Sunday best. A sizeable proportion are nude. There is no set pattern. As Sontag writes, ‘Bellocq couldn’t have dictated to them how they should pose – whether to exhibit themselves as they might for a customer, or, absent the customers, as the wholesome-looking country women most of them undoubtedly were.’It would seem that either the expediency of the moment or the sitters themselves determined the mode of dress. However, whether naked or dressed in their finest finery, almost every single woman projects an unforced sense of poise and confidence. Many smile – and they are clearly genuine, pleasurable smiles. Others are serious, but it is the quiet, quizzical seriousness of the daguerreotype and nineteenth century portrait, not the angst laden seriousness of so much of our contemporary portraiture. Bellocq’s women, as anyone in any portrait invariably does – in even the most casual snapshot – play a role, or rather a number of roles. We have the respectable grande dame, the ingénue, the working class girl, the mother, the sweetheart. A few even play the whore, with evident relish and more than a hint of self-mockery. In a key picture, a woman in candy striped stockings, her hair swept carefully into an elegant chignon – a gay Gibson Girl gone off the rails – smiles a rueful smile and toasts herself appreciatively with a glass of Raleigh Rye, in a sardonic gesture equivalent to that memorable stripper of Diane Arbus four decades on, pointedly brushing her nipple with an ironic finger – sisters in oppressed service together. Another Bellocq lady faces us from a chaise longue in what must be the most conventionally pornographic image in the series. Dressed in the classically erotic uniform of black mask, black stockings and nothing else, her smile is less of a come hither invitation than a gleefully ironic delight in the play acting of the situation. But the roles they play, though archetypal, are not stereotypical. For this is private rather than public role playing, and more importantly, it is triumphantly individualistic. These are roles that would seem to have been created, not for the photographer, certainly not for the punter, but for themselves, perhaps for each other. They are roles played in private before the boudoir mirror, and the mirror of Bellocq’s unobtrusive, considerate camera. They are roles enacted without posturing, without delusion, gentle fantasies that flatter but do not deceive. Thus they wholly avoid the blatancy of the stereotype and touch a deeper chord, a chord composed of whimsy, candour, irony and pathos – and ultimately truth. Almost without exception, Bellocq’s sitters look as if they have enjoyed the experience of having the camera record their phsyiognomy and divine their souls. They look as if they actually appreciated the results of the photographer’s honest endeavours.

One additional point of note. On several of the plates the subjects’ faces have been scratched out, a deliberate act of psychic violence which recalls the ancient Egyptian practice of scratching out the faces of deceased enemies in tomb paintings, thereby casting their souls into outer darkness. Susan Sontag is rightly disturbed by this wanton act, and speculates whether it was carried out by Bellocq. The earlier monograph states that one of Bellocq’s brothers was a priest, and may have been the perpetrator of this strange desecration. Whoever was responsible, it seems to have taken place years after the taking of the images. It certainly is an intriguing mystery and adds to the pictures’ aura as historical objects, but not their original efficacy as images. Bellocq may have had his personal reasons for defacing some of the plates at a later date, but such violence, reeking of misogyny, was surely not a part of his original conception – quite the contrary.

Bellocq’s success in the Storyville Portraits is a triumph for humanism, not misogyny. At a time when prostitutes were viewed by society as criminally wanton and pathologically disturbed – an attitude which has not disappeared entirely – Bellocq had the humanity not to judge. He would seem to have recognised, perhaps by dint of his own incapability, that all of us utilise our sexuality as much as any whore, and that we are all trapped by it. His attitude to whores, certainly as suggested by these images, defied all convention. It seems that he neither envied, pitied, nor despised them, but accepted them entirely for what they were. The simple, profound message of the Storyville Portraits is not that we are all whores, but that we are all human. Bellocq allowed his sitters – women utilising the one sure skill they had, women at the sharp end of sexual politics – their humanity and their individuality. And he did so without making a sentimental fetish of it. He allowed them their vanities, their frailties too. These ladies clearly may not all be blessed with hearts of gold. Nevertheless, Bellocq’s overriding sentiment is one of great respect, and, as John Szarkowski rightly dares to suggest – risking the charge of sentimentality – of love.

One of the peaks in a body of work that contains so many peaks, is of a naked woman no longer in the first flush of youth, standing awkwardly before an open window. Her breasts are drooping, her stomach is sagging, and her lumpy calves predict the onset of varicose veins. Yet, she is quite beautiful, radiant, clam, shining with the measured glow of self-possession, if only for the climactic instant of the shutter’s clicking. Bellocq’s humanity – his love – would seem to have allowed such radiance to flourish in so many of these remarkable images.

Since that fortuitous acquisition by Lee Friedlander, Ernest James Bellocq, the modest, almost unknown commercial photographer from New Orleans, has leapt – deservedly yet almost unbidden – into the front rank of humanist portraitists. True, this is a not overlarge company, for anti-humanism rather than humanism often has seemed the goal of photographic portraitists. Also, it must be said that Bellocq did not sustain, probably he could not sustain, a consistently cogent oeuvre as sizeable as that of Strand, Nadar, Sander, or Hine. Nevertheless, his work shares many of their considerable virtues, especially those of the last named. Not the least of these virtues are humility and simplicity. And what it lacks in quantity, Bellocq’s imagery compensates fully in intensity. Most remarkable of all, in that they were taken by a man, the Storyville Portraits constitute one of the most positive representations of women in the photographic medium. Indeed, it could be argued that they are one of the most positive, fresh, and unstereotyped views of women in the history of visual representation.

From Phototexts (1988)