E. J. Bellocq, Storyville Portraits @Deborah Bell

JTF (just the facts): A total of 36 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and on ledges in the office. All of the works are printing-out-paper prints with gold toning, made later by Lee Friedlander from c1912 negatives. Physical sizes are generally 8×10 inches (or the reverse) and the works are uneditioned. A monograph of this body of work was published in 1970 by the Museum of Modern Art. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: We are at a particular moment in photographic (and social) history where the male gaze, as seen in photographs of the female nude, is particularly ripe for critical reevaluation. While artistic interest in the elegant lines of the human form reaches back centuries, in recent years, the vantage point of heterosexual male desire and the unbalanced power dynamics that exist between photographer and subject in the nude studio setup have come under increasing scrutiny, opening the door to more support for the female gaze, as well as for further acceptance of fluidity of gender and sexuality as seen in the nude form.

When we consider the specific situation of female nudes made of prostitutes, the hetero male gaze is even more likely to be problematic; even if the man isn’t a customer, the reductive portrayal of the woman as an object is far too easy. A thoughtfully edited summer group show from a few years back at Daniel Cooney Fine Art (reviewed here) took stock of a wide range of historical and more recent photographs of prostitutes (both male and female), making a clear point that the subject is far more nuanced and complex than it might appear, and that tenderness and individual respect can meaningfully change the expected dynamics.

If there is a definitive outlier to the obvious pitfalls of the male gaze as applied to female prostitutes, it is the work of E.J. Bellocq. Made in the brothels of the Storyville district of New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century, Bellocq’s portraits consistently exude a casual, comfortable intimacy that stands out from more explicit and exploitative views.

That we have Bellocq’s images to compare with the rest of the genre is in itself something of an artistic miracle. There were two unlikely rescues involved – the first by the collector Larry Borenstein, who salvaged Bellocq’s glass plate negatives after they were found in the drawer of one of the artist’s desks after his death, and the second by the photographer Lee Friedlander, who bought the negatives from Borenstein in 1966, figured out how to make fragile printing-out-paper prints from the damaged negatives, and then convinced curator John Szarkowski to show the prints at MoMA (and produce a catalog) in 1970. Along with Vivian Maier and perhaps a few others, Bellocq stands as one of a handful of important photographers whose notoriety has primarily been generated by posthumous prints.

Of the 89 images Friedlander eventually printed, this show includes 36 pictures, 29 of which were in the MoMA edit, so it tracks the high points of Bellocq’s body of work with decent accuracy. What immediately sticks out about these portraits is the mood of familiarity – the nonthreatening, understated attentiveness on Bellocq’s side (even while using a bulky 8×10 camera), and the open, natural warmth of his subjects. While we can’t ever know for certain why everyone was so comfortable in such an admittedly awkward situation, the pictures are a testament to the power of easy-going trust between a photographer and his sitters – only a few of the young women chose to wear masks in the pictures to protect themselves from identification, and even these images seem to be setups of saucy fetish effect rather than successful concealment.

While Bellocq’s portraits are much admired and resurface now and then in group shows, this deeper solo presentation is a useful reminder of how much breadth there actually is in this relatively small body of work. The young women of Storyville are fresh and attractive, in a normal (both thin and curvy) and surprisingly ordinary way, but they quickly transform themselves into a variety of types and roles. The young women have posed themselves across the spectrum of nudity, from fully clothed (in modest Victorian fashions, complete with feathered hats, white garden party dresses, beaded gowns, and furs) to fully naked, with coy stops in between in lingerie, transparent lace, and black stockings.

Bellocq clearly had a limited number of options for props and setups, but seems to have made the most of a simple white backdrop, a single wooden chair, an upholstered chaise or two, and a few other boudoir furnishings, and he photographed his models both indoors and outdoors, taking advantage of differences of cast light to create alternate moods. While a few of the women aim for sultry posing, most settle into natural smiles, with sporty college pennants, cute dogs, and floral bouquets adding moments of personality. Aside from a few images where the faces have been scratched out (making them feel more headless and anonymous), the photographs are always of particular people rather than “prostitutes” in some generic sense, and that authentic individual intimacy makes even the most desultory of poses feel vital and engaging.

A longer look at the photographs reveals both quiet moments of elegance and endearing quirks. Bellocq was a master of making the details matter – a bared shoulder, a lazy crossed-leg slouch, a Madonna-like downward look, the fall of drapery from a nightgown, a tumble of long black hair, and a pose of hands-behind-the-back primness all resonate with an unlikely splash of timeless grace. And at the same time, the eccentricities of the everyday inside the closeted world of a brothel come to life in an odd full-length body suit, a hand drawn butterfly, a puffy sleep bonnet, a dozing roommate, and a smiling exchange with a dog.

In the parlance of wine or cheese, Bellocq’s Storyville portraits have certainly “aged well.” While frozen in a moment from the early 1910s, their nonjudgmental honesty seems to bridge that span of time with ease. If more female nudes were made with their genuine affection and empathy, perhaps the male gaze could make a comeback.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at either $3800 or $4500. In the past decade, the posthumous prints made by Friedlander have sold at auction between roughly $1200 and $4000, while a few earlier prints have surfaced, fetching prices between roughly $12000 and $50000. As an aside, the Bellocq negatives used by Friedlander to make the later prints on view in this show have since been acquired by the Met, so while the posthumous prints are uneditioned, no further prints will be made.

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One comment

  1. Walter Dufresne /

    “… the mood of familiarity – the nonthreatening, understated attentiveness on Bellocq’s side (even while using a bulky 8×10 camera), and the open, natural warmth of his subjects …”

    Your description of the photographs is both accurate and beautiful. Thanks for this. Never trusts photographs, actors, or prostitutes: their livelihoods traffic in those feelings viewers, audiences, and johns want to believe.

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