Storyville by E.J. Bellocq

Storyville by E.J. Bellocq

In 1897, the city council of New Orleans, Louisiana, ordered prostitutes to operate in a zone of tolerance. The area became known as ‘Storyville’ after Alderman Sidney Story (whose idea it was). Comprised of 16 square blocks just off the French Quarter, Storyville was home to legalised prostitution from January 1, 1898 until November 12, 1917, when the United States Navy closed it for good as the country entered World War 1.

Men flocked to brothels like the city’s infamous Mahogany Hall, housed on Basin Street beneath castle-like turrets. Jelly Roll Morton (October 20, 1890 – July 10, 1941) was the house pianist and E. J. Bellocq’s surviving Storyville photographs of the bordello are evidence of the elegant furnishings, glittering chandeliers and Tiffany stained-glass windows.

Bellocq’s pictures are sublime. They are, as Susan Sontag wrote, “far from the staged sadomasochistic high jinks of the bound women offering themselves up to the male gaze”.

Working as a commercial photographer, Bellocq occasionally took pictures for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Why he began to take photos of woman working in Storyville between 1911 and 1913 is not known.

The subjects of his portraits look relaxed in front of the camera, being themselves in their homes. Some of the nudes are scratched. Was that done to hide the identity of his subjects? Whatever the reasons, his touch is light and the pictures enduring. Bellocq’s photographs belong to the world of “anti-formulaic, anti-salacious sympathy for ‘fallen’ women,” wrote Sontag. “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.”