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The Real Thing

Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans

reproduced from prints made by Lee Friedlander, Introduction by Susan Sontag, interviews edited by John Szarkowski
Random House, 83 pp., $60.00

1.

The Real Thing,” one of Henry James’s most delicate exercises in irony, is the story of a young artist’s encounter with an odd couple—a well-dressed, middle-aged, rather vacuous pair named the Monarchs, who come to his studio one day and offer themselves as professional models. He is taken aback—he had thought they were society people who had come to have their portraits painted. Well, they are society people, as he is, but society people who have lost their money and desperately need work. They have learned that the artist does illustrations for book and magazine fiction and propose themselves as models for the high-born characters. As the husband puts it, “‘Wouldn’t it be rather a pull sometimes to have—a—to have—?’ He hung fire; he wanted me to help him by phrasing what he meant. But I couldn’t—I didn’t know. So he brought it out, awkwardly: ‘The real thing; a gentleman, you know, or a lady.”’

Reluctantly—for he already has models he is satisfied with—the artist takes the Monarchs on. His misgivings are confirmed. Having the real thing before him proves to be exactly what an artist attempting to represent it does not want. His model of many years, a cockney named Miss Churm, has been a perfect collaborator: “This young lady came back in black velvet—the gown was rather rusty and very low on her lean shoulders—and with a Japanese fan in her red hands…. She fell into position, settled herself into a tall attitude, gave a certain backward inclination to her head and a certain forward droop to her fan, and looked, at least to my prejudiced sense, distinguished and charming, foreign and dangerous.” Mrs. Monarch, in contrast, for all her refinement and white hands, subverts his enterprise: “I could see she had been photographed often, but somehow the very habit that made her good for that purpose unfitted her for mine…. I began to find her too insurmountably stiff; do what I could with it my drawing looked like a photograph or a copy of a photograph.” James elaborates: “She was always a lady certainly, and into the bargain was always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing.” The painter’s work suffers under the Monarchs’ baneful influence (the husband is as unsuccessful a model as the wife), and he eventually lets them go. They pathetically offer themselves as domestic servants. After an awkward week, he gives them a sum of money to go away.

The Real Thing” has been read as a parable of representation: a lesson in the fakery required to make art, the “lies” that are necessary to render an illusion of truth. The little cockney pretending to be a Russian princess and Oronte (another lowlife model in the artist’s employ, this one a former peddler of Italian ices) posing as an English duke signify art’s radical transformative powers. The Monarchs, pretending nothing, simply being themselves, illustrate the disaster of literalism. However, toward the end of the story James abruptly pulls the rug out from under his crisp parable and starts, in his Jamesian way, murmuring about something else. He asks us—indeed, forces us—to realign our sympathies, which have hitherto been all on the side of the nimble underclass models. When the artist sees the hopeless deposed Monarchs humbly washing his dishes and polishing his plate and “when it came over me, the latent eloquence of what they were doing, I confess that my drawing was blurred for a moment—the picture swam.” What is James up to? Who are the Monarchs? Early in the story James planted the clue that allows us to unpack his fable of art. He has the artist remark that illustration is not his real work: “I couldn’t get the honors, to say nothing of the emoluments, of a great painter of portraits out of my head. My ‘illustrations’ were my pot-boilers.” The fake princess and the fake duke serve the artist well in his illustrational enterprise precisely because the enterprise is itself fake. The Monarchs are emissaries of authenticity. They offer the artist his chance to become great by engaging with the real. The “same thing” they helplessly display to him is their terror. But he does not want to see it, and when a momentary glimpse of it is forced on him, his fear that it will blind and paralyze him is confirmed: “my drawing was blurred…the picture swam.” He steps back from the edge and remains in the comfortable world of mediocrity grounded in shallow illusion.

James’s references to photography in the story, like the story itself, can be read on two levels. On the first level, the artist-narrator’s remark that his drawings of Mrs. Monarch looked like photographs merely reflects the conventional view of photography as a lesser medium. In this view, to say that a drawing looks like a photograph is to harshly put it down. On the second level, the allusion to photography may be seen as a reflection of the narrator’s obscure awareness of photography’s special capacity for revealing hidden truths—truths the mind-ruled eye prefers not to see but that the mindless camera is forced to record. Mrs. Monarch’s stiffness is the truth about her. Her discomfort with her situation, her uneasy relationship to the artist, a member of her own class with whom she is no longer on an equal footing, her distaste for being gazed at not as a society lady having her likeness taken for a flattering carte de visite but as a studio model being treated as flesh—all this is so insistently present in her body and face that the artist’s drawings cannot avoid reflecting it. They look like photographs, or copies of photographs, because of the unwanted truths leaking out of them. These truths are the substance of art, but the artist can’t handle them; he relapses into the comfortable lies of illustration, allowing “the real thing” to disappear from his studio.

2.

In 1970, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited thirty-four photographs of women, most of them nude or semi-nude, taken around 1912 by a hitherto unknown commercial photographer named E.J. Bellocq. The photographs—or, rather, the glass plate negatives from which they were printed—were found in a drawer in the photographer’s house in New Orleans after his death in 1949 and, in 1966, came into the possession of the photographer Lee Friedlander, who made the prints shown at the museum. The subjects were believed to be prostitutes who worked in the brothels of the Storyville district of New Orleans, where prostitution had been legalized in 1896.

Why Bellocq took the pictures is not known. But that they were extraordinary photographs was immediately clear. Although the issue of “the male gaze”—the unpleasant way in which male artists have traditionally scrutinized women’s bodies as they painted or sculpted or photographed them—had not yet been raised as such, the friendliness of Bellocq’s eye, the reciprocity that flowed between him and his subjects, could not but forcibly strike the viewer. For a long time in this country, the problematic character of the nude genre was obscured by censorship: until the mid-Sixties, advanced opinion was more concerned with such matters as whether a photograph showing pubic hair could be got through the mail (Edward Weston’s second wife, Charis, has written of scrutinizing Weston’s prints with a magnifying glass for dangerous stray hairs) than with the question of whether any picture of a naked woman is, by definition, caddish. Today, of course, it is impossible to look at a female (or male) nude without weighing the question of the artist’s attitude toward his or her subject. Bellocq’s mysterious photographs pass the test of good attitude so triumphantly that they seem anachronistic.

They differ from the nude photography of their day in other significant respects. As Manet’s Olympia shocked viewers at the Salon of 1865 because instead of a rosy, complaisant nymph rising from the waves surrounded by cherubs, it showed a pale, self-assured prostitute lying on her unmade bed attended by a black maid and cat, so do Bellocq’s nudes astonish us in the way they diverge from the conventions by which nude photography—of both the dirty and arty variety—was ruled in its day. Instead of women strainfully posed amid veils, drapery, fruit, flowers, classical columns, and oriental braziers (one extra-rich example in Serge Nazarieff’s collection Early Erotic Photography even includes a lurking Arab), Bellocq presents women in relaxed attitudes photographed in ordinary nineteenth-century American rooms with patterned wallpapers, floral rugs, chests of drawers with runners on them, wicker settees, silk souvenir cushions.

In one of these familiar, homely interiors a young woman with fine, wavy hair, which she has allowed to hang loose, sits facing the camera with her arms akimbo on a plain wood chair, her silk chemise drawn up to her crotch and her bare legs casually crossed at the ankles. Something has evidently just passed between her and the photographer which has caused her to delightedly smile at him. In another photograph, a slender young woman wearing a domino mask reclines on a floral upholstered chaise set in front of a mahogany bed; she is naked except for black stockings, and there is an ironic aspect to her pose; from her, too, Bellocq has elicited a wonderful smile that compels the viewer’s own. In yet another picture, this one taken outdoors, a young woman wearing a loose white shift over bloomers holds a remarkably ugly dog on her lap and, again, seems to be sharing an extremely pleasant moment with the photographer.

What is going on here? How did Bellocq gain his entrée into these brothels? What was his relationship to these women? For what purpose was he taking their pictures? None of these questions was answered in the book that accompanied the 1970 exhibition, which provided only a note about how Friedlander had acquired the plates (he purchased them from a New Orleans gallery owner and jazz afi-cionado named Larry Borenstein), and a dialogue about Bellocq created by John Szarkowski, then director of the MOMA photography department, out of snippets of conversations Friedlander had taped with various New Orleans photographers and musicians who had known the photographer. Their acquaintance with him was clearly very slight. Little more emerged from their accounts than that Bellocq was funny-looking (he was very short and had an extremely large and elongated head) and kept to himself. A former Storyville prostitute named Adele briefly joined the discussion to say, “I don’t know if he ever wanted to do nothing but look” and “He always behaved polite.” (The source of her lines was a letter to Friedlander from a writer named Al Rose.) Szarkowski’s interpolated paragraphs of curatorial waf-fle (“…These works by Bellocq seem both totally real and totally unfamiliar. Real because their component allusions—their forms and textures and spaces—are described coherently; unfamiliar because Bellocq had a different fix on the continuum—different eyes, a different mind, different knowledge”) only added to the sense of the dialogue’s emptiness. When, twenty-six years later, a new edition of Bellocq’s photographs was announced, one naturally expected that more information was forthcoming. But the new book, though it adds eighteen images to the original thirty-four, as well as a fine essay of appreciation by Susan Sontag, simply reprints Friedlander’s note and Szarkowski’s dialogue.

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