Sinful flesh

EJ Bellocq was the shadowy chronicler of New Orleans at the turn of the century. Susan Sontag discusses his faded but remarkable photographs of the nameless women of Storyville, the red-light district where jazz was born
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The Independent Culture
First of all, the pictures are unforgettable - photography's ultimate standard of value. And it's not hard to see why the trove of glass negatives by a hitherto unknown photographer working in New Orleans in the early years of this century became one of the most admired recoveries in photography's widening, ever incomplete history. Eighty-nine glass plates in varying states of corrosion, shatter, and defacement was the treasure that the New York photographer Lee Friedlander came across in New Orleans in the late Fifties and eventually purchased. When, in 1970, a selection of the ingeniously developed, superb prints Friedlander had made was published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the book became, deservedly, an instant classic. So much about these pictures affirms current taste: the low-life material: the near mythic provenance (Storyville); the informal, anti-art look, which accords with the virtual anonymity of the photographer and the real anonymity of his sitters; their status as objets trouves, and a gift from the past. Add to this what is decidedly unfashionable about the pictures: the plausibility and friendliness of their version of the photographer's troubling, highly conventional subject. And because the subject is so conventional, the photographer's relaxed way of looking seems that much more distinctive. If there had once been more than 89 glass negatives and one day a few others turned up anywhere in the world, no one would fail to recognise a Bellocq.

The year is 1912, but we would not be surprised to be told that the pictures were taken in 1901, when Theodore Dreiser began writing Jennie Gerhardt, or in 1899, when Kate Chopin published The Awakening, or in 1889, the year Dreiser set the start of his first novel, Sister Carrie - the ballooning clothes and plump bodies could be dated anywhere from 1880 to the beginning of the First World War. The charges of indecency that greeted Chopin's only novel and Dreiser's first were so unrelenting that Chopin retreated from literature and Dreiser faltered. (Anticipating more such attacks, Dreiser, after beginning his great second novel in 1901, put it aside for a decade.) Bellocq's photographs belong to this same world of anti-formulaic, anti-salacious sympathy for "fallen" women, though in his case we can only speculate about the origin of that sympathy. For we know nothing about the author of these pictures except what some old cronies of Bellocq told Friedlander: that he had no other interests except photography; that "he always behaved polite" (this from one of his Storyville sitters); that he spoke with a "terrific" French accent; and that he was - shades of Toulouse-Lautrec - hydrocephalic and dwarf-like. Lest the association induce us to imagine Bellocq as a belle epoque erotomane who had transplanted himself to the humid Franco-creole American city to continue his voyeuristic haunting of bordellos, it might be mentioned that Bellocq also frequented the opium dens of New Orleans's Chinatown with his camera. The Chinatown series, alas, has never been recovered.

The Storyville series (in this new, enlarged edition) includes two pictures of parlour decor. The interest for Bellocq must have been that, above a fireplace in one picture and a roll-top desk in the other, the walls are covered with photographs surrounding a central painting, photographs with the same contrasts as the ones he was taking: all are of women, some dressed to the nines, some erotically naked. The rest of Bellocq's photographs are individual portraits. That is, there is a single subject per picture, except for a shot of two champagne drinkers on the floor absorbed in a card game (there is a similar off- duty moment in Bunuel's unconvincing, notional portrait of a brothel in Belle de Jour) and another of a demure girl posing in her Sunday best, long white dress and jacket and hat, beside an iron bed in which someone is sleeping. Typically - an exception is this picture, which shows only the sleeping woman's head and right arm - Bellocq photographs his subjects in full figure, though sometimes a seated figure will be cut off at the knees; in only one picture, a naked woman reclining on some embroidered pillows, does one have the impression that Bellocq has chosen to come in close. Central to the impression the pictures make on us is that there are a large number of them, with the same setting and cast in a variety of poses, from the most natural to the most self-conscious, and degrees of dress/undress. That they are part of a series is what gives the photographs their integrity, their depth, their meaning. Each individual picture is informed by the meaning that attaches to the whole group.

Most obviously, it could not be detected from at least a third of the pictures that the women are inmates of a brothel. Some are fully clothed: in one picture a woman in a large feathered hat, long-sleeved white blouse adorned with a brooch and locket, and black skirt sits in the yard in front of a low black backdrop, just beyond which frayed towels are drying on a laundry line. Others are in their underwear or something like it: one poses on a chair, her hands clasped behind her head, wearing a comical- looking body stocking. Many are photographed naked - with unpretentious candour about, mostly, unpretentious bodies. Some just stand there, as if they didn't know what to do once they had taken off their clothes for the camera. Only a few offer a voluptuous pose, like the long-tressed adolescent odalisque on a wicker divan - probably Bellocq's best known picture. Two photographs show women wearing masks. One is a come-hither picture: an exceptionally pretty woman with a dazzling smile reclines on a chaise longue; apart from her trim, Zorro-style mask she is wearing only black stockings. The other picture, the opposite of a pin-up, is of a large-bellied, entirely naked woman whose mask sits as awkwardly on her face as she is awkwardly posed on the edge of a wooden chair; the mask (it appears to be a full mask minus its lower half) seems too big for her face. The first woman seems happy to pose (as, given her charms, well she might); the second seems diminished, even foiled, by her nudity. In some pictures, in which the sitters adopt a genteelly pensive look, the emotion is harder to read. But in others there is little doubt that posing is a game, and fun: the woman in the shawl and vivid striped stockings sitting beside her bottle of "Raleigh Rye", appreciatively eyeing her raised glass; the woman in ample undergarments and black stockings stretched out on her stomach over an ironing board set up in the backyard, beaming at a tiny dog. Clearly, no one was being spied on, everyone was a willing subject. And 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.

How far we are, in Bellocq's company, from the staged sadomasochistic high jinks of the bound women offering themselves up to the male gaze (or worse) in the disturbingly acclaimed photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki, or the cooler, more stylish, unvaryingly intelligent lewdness of the images devised by Helmut Newton. The only pictures that do seem salacious - or convey something of the meanness and abjection of a prostitute's life - are those (11 in the book) on which the faces have been scratched out. (In one, the vandal - could it have been Bellocq himself? - missed the face.) These pictures are actually painful to look at, at least for this viewer. But then I am a woman and, unlike many men who look at these pictures, find nothing romantic about prostitution. That part of the subject I do take pleasure in is the beauty and forthright presence of many of the women, photographed in homely circumstances that affirm both sensuality and domestic ease, and the tangibility of their vanished world. How touching, good-natured, and respectful these pictures are. What a splendid gift Lee Friedlander has given us

'Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans', is published by Jonathan Cape on 13 June, price pounds 50

Who was Bellocq?

In 1969, contemporaries spoke about the portraitist to photographer Lee Friedlander

Dan Leyrer, photographer, New Orleans The first time I saw Bellocq was, I guess, about 1912, about the time he took these pictures. It was down on Dauphine Street. My uncle was stage manager of the old Greenwall burlesque house, and Bellocq used to hang around there. My uncle and the stagehands used to call him pap. Not papa now, pap, 'cause he was French you know and he had a terrific accent and he spoke in a high-pitched voice, staccato- like, and when he got excited he sounded like an angry squirrel. It's true. And he talked to himself, and would go walking around with little mincing steps. And he waddled a little bit like a duck. And he had this terrific head...

Joe Sanarens, photographer and former banjo player, New Orleans It looked like you took the head and squeezed it so it popped up about this high.

Leyrer What I think made it look worse than it was, was because from the eyebrows, instead of receding like a normal person's head, it went straight up. Now I don't know whether it was higher up than an ordinary person's or not but it certainly looked that way.

Johnny Wiggs, cornetist, New Orleans He had a very, very high forehead which came to a point, and he was somewhat bald, or at least that's the impression that I have, and he must have had some kind of brain disease.

Adele, formerly of Storyville, subject of several Bellocq portraits A waterhead. You know, one of them high heads.

Wiggs This vast forehead going up and coming to a point, and it seems to me his face widened out as it came down to the chin, so you got a sort of pyramid effect. I remember him being very fair.

Bill Russell, musician and jazz historian, New Orleans And light-coloured hair, what he had left. Blue eyes or dark eyes?

Wiggs I can't remember that. I hardly ever look at eyes unless they're startling blue. A brunette with blue eyes, you can't hardly help but remember that.

Russell How tall was he?

Wiggs Oh, I would say he was five feet. He was short. And his sitdown place was very wide. And he had very narrow shoulders. I'll tell you who would just love to paint him is Noel Rockmore. Rockmore gives everybody narrow shoulders and a big sitdown place.

John Szarkowski, editor of these interviews commentsThis is an unpromising beginning. We are being told of a hydrocephalic semi-dwarf, a good subject for a caricaturist, who cultivated the company of prostitutes. Surely none of these qualities would disqualify Bellocq as an artist; nevertheless, one feels that the idea has been used before, in various embarrassing films, and that it is in any case of marginal relevance. One does not become an artist by cutting off an ear or by having a misshapen head. The world has always been half full of people who have been teased, always cruelly and often unjustly, and most of them have been remembered briefly with pity, or not at all. Bellocq - whoever he was - interests us not as an object of pity but as an artist: a man who saw more clearly than we do, and who discovered secrets. He was not an "important" photographer. Even if the pictures had been widely known half a century ago, they would not have changed the history of photography, for they did not involve new concepts, only an original sensibility. Seeing his pictures, we are persuaded that he had knowledge of the nature of other human beings.