About E.J. Bellocq

In a way you can say it took Ernest Bellocq dying before those around him would come to appreciate what he actually accomplished while alive. An incredibly talented photographer for his time, Bellocq would be recognized by the City of New Orleans in 1898 for his photos of ships and Mardi Gras floats. But it’s what was found after his death in 1949 that would alter the name and image of Ernest J. Bellocq forever. Unknown to all but a privileged few, Bellocq was the famed photographer of the women of Storyville, New Orleans' historic legalized red-light district.

1026 Conti Street

In what some would call irony, others destiny, 1026 Conti was actually the childhood home of Bellocq before it became the famed brothel of Norma Wallace. Born in 1873 to an aristocratic, white Creole family, Bellocq and his brother Leo, who would later become a Jesuit priest, spent their childhood in and later owned 1026 Conti until they sold the property in 1911 for $9,880. Bellocq’s venture into the infamous world of prostitution began when Bellocq, a 30-year-old man living alone, began to take notice of what was occurring just blocks away from his front door across Rampart Street. He would grab his camera and venture into another world; a world of where elaborate homes served as the backdrop to music, liquor and ladies for pleasure. At one time you could even purchase what was known as the “Blue Book,” a directory that alphabetically listed the nearly 700 prostitutes who worked for madams in the area.

Storyville became Bellocq’s private pictorial assignment. It’s not known how many photos Bellocq took, but after his death, 89 glass negative slides were found, all dated 1912. The slides highlight the women of Storyville, some young and vivacious, others older and much heavier. Some women were dressed respectably for that era, others posed nude or partially clothed in what was considered more provocative positions. No one is sure why Bellocq chose to focus his talents on the women of Storyville, but the photos show that he obviously recognized the women for their natural beauty; there was no glamorization or vilification of the ladies, he just simply photographed them with a simplicity that nevertheless captures a certain mysteriousness and complexity.

As mentioned, it wasn’t until after Bellocq’s death that his work was found. His brother, now Fr. Leo, and two witnesses went to Bellocq’s home after his death to begin packing up what was his life and that’s when they discovered, according to history, the collection of glass negatives concealed in a sofa. These slides were never listed in the succession. At some point, they ended up being stored in a bathroom in an antique shop, and that’s where Lee Friedlander, a photographer himself, obtained the slides, some of which he found to have the faces of the women scratched so they are not identifiable. Legend has it that Bellocq’s brother was responsible, but that myth is disputed because in some cases, there were two negatives of the same woman, one negative damaged while the other remains intact.

As with so much of Bellocq’s life, there are many twists and turns and unknowns, like who damaged some of the slides and what was Bellocq’s real name. In his baptismal record, they have him named as John Joseph Ernest and then later in the same record they have his name as Joseph John Ernest. What is known though, is that Bellocq became a legend long after his death. In 1971, Freidlander published a selection of the photographs in a book entitled Storyville Portraits. In 1996, a more extensive collection of Friedlander's prints, entitled Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, was published.

Today, Bellocq’s remains are buried in the family tomb St. Louis Cemetery #3 in New Orleans along Esplanade Avenue. Whether it was a coincidence or his destiny, Bellocq lies just across Bayou St. John near the New Orleans Museum of Art where at one time, his private collection was once on display for all to see.

Storyville Photographs

All the photographs are portraits of women. Some are nude, some dressed, others posed as if acting a mysterious narrative. 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 E. J.'s death or someone else is unknown. Bellocq is the most likely candidate, since the damage was done while the emulsion was still wet. In a few photographs the women wore masks.

Some prints made by Bellocq have since surfaced. These are far more conventional than the full-negative prints made by Friedlander. The Storyville photographs not only serve as a record of the prostitutes, but also the interiors of the businesses that housed them.

In Literature & Film

The mystique about Bellocq has inspired several fictional versions of his life, notably Louis Malle's 1978 film 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. These works take many liberties with the facts of Bellocq's life. He is also a minor character in David Fulmer's novel Chasing the Devil's Tail.

The photographs have inspired imaginative literature about the women in them. There are several collections of poems, notably Brooke Bergan's Storyville: A Hidden Mirror and Natasha Trethewey's Bellocq's Ophelia.

The 1974 book Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose gives an overview of the history of prostitution in New Orleans with many photographs by Bellocq.

In 1971, "Storyville Portraits" won a mention at the Rencontres d'Arles's Book Award, France

The 1983 novel Fat Tuesday by R. Wright Campbell features a thinly-veiled depiction of Bellocq, a photographer named B.E. Locque.

Bellocq appears as a fictional character in David Fulmer's Storyville novels Chasing the Devil's Tail and Rampart Street.