Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans
“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.
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.
As I leafed through the new book—which improves on the old one in bringing the photographs up to the size of the plates, giving them immeasurably more presence—I paused at a picture of a prostitute with her clothes on, and it occurred to me to wonder whether she actually was a prostitute. What evidence was there that she, or, for that matter, any woman in the book, clothed or unclothed, was an inhabitant of a whorehouse rather than, say, a cousin or a sister of the photographer, or a paid model? The picture that gave rise to my doubts shows a young woman wearing a fancy white dress decorated with swags of pearl beading under a white fur stole, posing in half profile against a dark background. She has a strikingly sad look on her face; the photographer has captured her in a moment of reverie. She is holding a pose for the camera but she has also allowed her thoughts to wander somewhere very far away for a fraction of a moment, and it is this fraction that Bellocq has pounced on and arrested. A page earlier, the same model appears in the same dress, but photographed slightly further away, so that we can see that the black background is a photographer’s backdrop set up outside a brick building. This photograph may have been taken a moment before or after the other; the “decisive moment,” when the contingent and the willed fuse in a kind of thunderclap, has clearly passed or not yet arrived—the photograph is nowhere near the equal of the other, but in neither case is there any indication that the subject is anything but a respectable woman.
I called up John Szarkowski and put my question to him. He said he had no answer (he indicated that the Bellocq photographs were far from his current preoccupations) and suggested that I call Lee Friedlander. I did so, and Friedlander gave me part of the answer I sought: he said that the wallpapers that appear in some of the photographs had been identified by contemporaries as having been in Mahogany Hall, one of the Storyville bordellos, run by a woman named Lulu White. But about the clothed women, most of whom were photographed in wallpaperless settings, he, too, could tell me nothing, and suggested I call Steven Maklansky, a young curator of photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art, who, he said, had come into some new information about Bellocq in the course of mounting a show of Bellocq’s photographs. I called Maklansky, and he urged me to come and see the show. He said it gave a radically new idea of Bellocq. The new information, much of which had been unearthed in local archives by Rex Rose, the son of Al Rose, challenged the image of Bellocq that had wafted out of the Szarkowski dialogue as a sort of Toulouse-Lautrec of photography—“a hydrocephalic semi-dwarf,” in Szarkowski’s memorable characterization—whose existence was defined exclusively in terms of the low life he so vividly inscribed on his glass plates. Rose discovered—and Maklansky so informed the visitor to his show on wall placards—that “the real Ernest J. Bellocq was more normal than some people have hoped for.”
He was born on August 19, 1873, into a middle-class Catholic Creole family. His father was a bookkeeper, and Ernest became a clerk and bookkeeper himself after leaving school (but not home) at eighteen. He took up photography as a hobby, subscribed to amateur photography magazines, and joined the New Orleans Camera Club. His appearance—Maklansky/Rose bore down repeatedly on this point—was not abnormal. He was not freakishly short, nor was his head strangely shaped. An engraving printed in 1898 in The Owl, an amateur photography magazine, shows him as a dapper man with a mustache and a homburg (but doesn’t prove anything one way or the other, since the picture shows him only from the chest up, and who knows what is going on under the hat). More persuasive is an extract from a hospital record of 1949, made shortly before Bellocq’s death, which describes him (at seventy-six) as “senile, obese, diabetic, afflicted with narrowing arteries” but, as Maklansky writes, “also refers to Bellocq as ‘a well-developed white male,’ and makes no mention of dwarfism or an abnormally shaped head.”
The New Orleans show provided a new visual as well as documentary context to the Storyville pictures. It showed a number of examples of Bellocq’s commercial photography (his hobby apparently became a profession around the turn of the century): competent, if rather boring, pictures of public monuments, sports teams, graduation classes, first-communion groups. (They are like the photographs in antique shops one buys for the frames.) By way of countering “the rather cheerful picture of these women’s lives and circumstances” the Storyville photographs give, Maklansky showed a series of grim police photographs of prostitutes who had been arrested for, among other crimes, “living outside the District.” (Maklansky looked for, but failed to find, any of Bellocq’s women in the police files.)
The most radical of Maklansky’s revisionist points concerned Bellocq’s intentions. He disputes the view of Bellocq as a quirky innovator, a sort of pioneer of surreally truth- telling documentary photography, and sees him as an unresistant follower of the pictorialist aesthetic of the 1890s and 1910s. He demonstrates that, in the case of a number of the photographs at least, Bellocq never intended to print the whole plate, but had cropping and Victorian “vignetting” in mind from the start. Both the old and new Bellocq books contain two interior shots that Bellocq took in his own apartment, and Maklansky’s sharp eye, running over a group of framed photographs displayed on and above Bellocq’s desk and mantlepiece, recognized some of Bellocq’s women, but now cropped down to their faces and shoulders to make unremarkable Victorian studio portraits. (Among them is the woman in the white pearl-beaded dress and fur stole. In her uncropped appearance, the tell-tale photographer’s backdrop in the background might, of course, have alerted us to Bellocq’s intentions.) Maklansky’s discovery forces us to look anew at some of Bellocq’s most memorable compositions. For example, his photograph of a woman with a large white feathered hat, pleated white blouse, and black skirt, seated outdoors in front of a large dark rectangle (a photographer’s backdrop) that only partially conceals a clothesline on which tea towels are drying—a composition foreshadowing the street-surrealism of Cartier-Bresson and Kertész. What does one do with the knowledge that the tea towels were never meant to play any role in the composition, that the woman’s black-stockinged legs are crossed with such jaunty ease because she knows they will not appear in the picture?
“I hope the show has changed the perception that Bellocq was a hydrocephalic semi-dwarf,” Maklansky remarked for the second or third time as we walked through the exhibition together.
“Why do you care so much about that?” I asked.
“Why do I care so much about that,” he repeated. “Do you mean apart from a historian’s need to get the facts straight?”
“Yes. How does it affect the photographs?”
Maklansky didn’t answer the question. He didn’t seem to be able to get his mind around the idea that Bellocq’s physical appearance might have no particular bearing on his work. Later, it occurred to me that Maklansky’s quarrel with Szarkowski about Bellocq’s stature was really a quarrel about Bellocq’s status as an artist. The thrust of the Maklansky show was to undermine the Szarkowski/Friedlander view of Bellocq as a giant of photography. Protesting that he wasn’t a dwarf, Maklansky in fact brought him down to size, showed him as a man of his time trying to make banal pictorialist photographs like everyone else’s, and as a kind of hapless bystander swept up by a historical accident—Modernism—which transformed his humble productions into the arrogant objects of twentieth-century advanced art. To get the impact of the Maklansky show, imagine an exhibition of Duchamp’s readymades in which his snow shovel and bottle rack and ball of twine are shown thrust back into the clutter of the hardware stores and restaurant supply shops they came from. Maklansky’s attempt to dismantle the assisted readymades that Friedlander and Szarkowski created out of Bellocq’s plates (time has had a hand in the matter, too: some of the prints show the effects of water damage to the plates—in ways that sometimes resemble the artful manipulations of contemporary photographers like Joel Peter Witkin and the Starn twins, for example) succeeded all too well. In the course of answering some, though by no means all, of our questions about Bellocq (the central mystery of why he took the pictures remains), Maklansky raises a new one: Why put this man’s work in an art museum?
Most collections of photographs are like contact sheets: one scans them impatiently for the occasional real photograph. The new collection of Bellocq’s photographs, like the old one—even more than the old one, in fact—is that rare thing, a book of photographs that delivers a powerful aesthetic experience. The small book of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of the Thirties and Forties put out by the Museum of Modern Art in 1947 was such a work, as was the 1972 collection of Diane Arbus’s photographs. These books enact the process of selection by which photography is defined with such cool authority that in their totality they themselves acquire some of the aura of a great photograph. Maklansky’s inclusion of all eighty-nine of the Bellocq photographs in his exhibition was yet another instrument of its de-aestheticization of the work. Two photographs in the show—one of a bedroom in Mahogany Hall, whose Eastlake bed with a crisp white coverlet and starched white pillows, marble-top dresser, and lace-covered side table make it indistinguishable from master bedrooms or guest rooms in the most staid of Victorian houses; and the other of a hallway in the same whorehouse, whose columns, chandeliers, and polished wood floors evoke the lobbies of apartment houses on the Upper West Side—provide interesting footnotes but were wisely excluded from the book. Once they hand over their information, they have little to offer as photographs. Other photographs properly excluded from the book are versions of included ones which are simply not as strong.
Among the eighteen images added to the new book are a number that belong to a special category: pictures derived from plates that have been defaced not by time and weather but by a deliberate hand. In the prints made from these plates, savage black scrawls cover the subjects’ faces, as if done by an angry child with access to India ink. (Who did the scratching-out is not known. Speculation that Bellocq’s brother Leon, a priest, did it is unsubstantiated. The likeliest suspect is Bellocq himself, by default. These photographs—which appear late in the book—have a character of their own. “How touching, good natured, and respectful these pictures are,” Susan Sontag writes in her introduction, obviously referring to the early pictures. The defaced (de-faced) pictures are not touching, good-natured, or respectful. They have a dangerous luster, an ugliness, a sordid darkness. The women in most of them are nude, and the scratched-out faces give them a quality of lewdness and illicitness. They make us realize how much our impression of Bellocq as a man who liked women in a way that seems almost sisterly derives from the expressions of the women he photographed, with or without clothes on. Their features reflect a playful, uncomplicated friendliness. When the faces are gone—when all we see are breasts, navels, pubic triangles, and vicious scratches obliterating the faces—we begin to have different associations. The decision by Friedlander and Mark Holborn of Random House to include eight more of the scratched-out pictures in the new book may well have come out of the same sober thoughts about prostitution that impelled Maklansky to show the police photographs. A mental connection between the savage marks on the plates made by an anonymous hand and the physical abuse a prostitute is vulnerable to at the hands of strangers is not hard to make.
But another influence may also have been at work. The pictures with the scratched-out faces have a high-art appearance that was surely not intended by the defacer but that developments in art have, willy-nilly, bestowed on them. The scribble—with its associations of aggression, negation, cancellation as well as of authenticity, energy, individuality—is an established mannerism of contemporary art. (Cy Twombly, Pat Steir, Joseph Beuys, David Salle are some leading practitioners.) One of the most contemporary-looking of the scratched-out pictures shows a standing naked woman, with black stockings covering her legs to mid-thigh, who has been decapitated by a black mass of scratches that hangs over her head and shoulders like a photographer’s head cloth. This blackness merges with a surrounding blackness brought on by water damage to the plate—a collaboration between the ravages of the anonymous scribbler and those of time and weather that makes the picture look like one of the artfully ruined works of the Starn twins.
Another example shows a woman who is not nude—she is wearing a white body stocking—in an extraordinary pose reminiscent of one of Oscar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus ballet dancers: one arm is upraised in a broad sweeping gesture, the other is akimbo, and the right leg is diagonally extended, with the toe grounding a beautiful line that winds its way up the body to the fingers of the upraised hand. The scratches over the face are done with fast, free diagonal strokes that seem to be charged with the energy of the dance the woman is about to break into. This photograph (like most of the photographs in the book) does not belong to the category Maklansky has so persuasively identified as preliminary works for formal vignetted portraits. Bellocq obviously conceived of the picture as we now see it. He carefully posed the woman in front of a dark curtain with a flowered border flanked by the uprights of a white wood doorframe. He placed (or left) a small flowered china spittoon on the floor at the right of the doorway to complete his composition. On the facing page we see the woman in the body stocking posed in the same doorway, but now she is sitting in a chair with her legs comfortably stretched out before her and leaning back with her hands clasped behind her head. Her, this time, uncensored young face is regarding the photographer with a clear, serious gaze. It is possible that this woman is also the subject of what is surely the most remarkable and startling of the scratched-out photographs. Here she is nude and lies on a bed, the head again resting on her clasped hands, the torso and arms propped by silk cushions printed with delicate Chinese landscapes. The pale, compact, small-breasted, relaxed yet assertive body evokes Olympia, but an Olympia to whom something hideous has been done, perhaps the thing the outraged visitors to the Salon of 1865 wanted but didn’t dare to do. Her face has been obliterated by an inky black blotch.
Much of the shock of the picture, the sense of violation and violence, comes from the contrast between the luminous whiteness of the sheets, the cushions, the gauzy curtains, and the bare flesh and the indelible blackness of the blotch. But here, in contrast to the other defaced pictures—and like the Winged Victory and some of Stieglitz’s and Weston’s severely cropped nudes—one does not need a face to “recognize” the person. The body has become a substitute for the face. Bellocq’s reclining woman has opened herself completely to view, allowing the photographer to move in close (the picture is framed to cut the figure off at the knee), and propelling the spectator, his surrogate, into a remarkably intimate relationship with her nakedness. As the eye moves upward from the fair-skinned body, which the camera has tenderly modeled (and whose pubic and underarm hair it has recorded with a kind of reticent conscientiousness), to the blacked-out face, it recoils as if before a scene of rape. Whatever the defacer meant by the act, he (or she) has inscribed a chilling metaphor for the brutality of the enterprise that offers bodies for sale—and, by extension, for all exercises of power against the powerless. We are here far away from modernist playfulness; this is an image of Goyaesque mordancy and urgency. This is the real thing. That history has drawn a blank on its origins has not diminished—has possibly only enhanced—its dreadful beauty.
Bellocq’s Women March 6, 1997