E.J. Bellocq, Storyville and Pretty Baby

E. J. Bellocq is best known today for his evocative photographs of the prostitutes of Storyville, the notorious section of New Orleans where prostitution became legal in the late 1800s and lasted through the early years of the 20th century. Bellocq was a native of New Orleans and began his photographic career, first as an amateur photographer then turning professional, shooting mostly ships and machinery for local companies in the area.

However, Bellocq had a private side to his life that few people knew about. He would travel across Basin Street to Storyville, where he turned his 8×10 camera on the ladies of the New Orleans night. It is for these photographs Bellocq today is best remembered. The portraits at first seem standard portraits of the women of the day, except that in many pictures the ladies are nude, though not always. Some women seem uncomfortable in the photos, not because they are naked, but more likely because they do not know how to pose in front of the camera. Yet, others come across as very comfortable, posing with an innocent grace. Bellocq was no pretentious artist; his work is very informal, almost anti-artistic. They have an old world charm; the women are plump, the clothes almost 19th century. The photographs become even more intriguing for the details they reveal about the interior living conditions, what it looked like inside these “specialty” houses. For example, in one photo we surprisingly see college banners (Louisiana, Michigan and Missouri) hanging on a wall.

By 1978, the JAWS and STAR WARS blockbuster mentality had taken over from the sophisticated, artistic, personal films of the early 1970s. Out of synch with the new Hollywood trend, French New Wave director Louis Malle (MURMUR OF THE HEART, LACOMBE, LUCIEN) released his first American film, PRETTY BABY in 1978, with Keith Carradine as E. J. Bellocq. The film also stars Susan Sarandon and a young Brooke Shields as mother and daughter. Sarandon is a prostitute named Hattie with a 12-year-old daughter (Violet). The story opens with Malle playfully seducing the audience’s expectations as we first meet Violet in an extreme closeup of her face. On the soundtrack, we hear what sounds like a woman approaching a sexual climax. However, as Malle soon reveals, the woman is really in the middle of child birth.

Bellocq comes to the house of ill repute one day requesting to photograph the “employees.” The cocaine sniffing Madame Nell (Frances Faye), agrees only after Bellocq agrees to pay for the privilege. Bellocq befriends Violet as he goes about meticulously photographing the ladies of the house.
Soon after, Madame Nell decides Violet is ready to enter the house business raffling off her virginity to the highest bidder. A celebratory ceremony accompanies Violet’s delivery to the winner. Both Bellocq and the black piano player known as the Professor (Antonio Fargas) stand off to the side from the “festivities” effectively reflecting their unease with the perverted ritual, yet both remain quiet, no attempt’s made to stop it, knowing this is Storyville and that’s the way it goes.

Hattie wants out of the business and marries a financially well off customer, leaving New Orleans and her past behind, moves to St. Louis. Violet refuses to go. For her, this house is her home, she stays behind. However, Violet does eventually go to live with Bellocq and they soon marry. Yet Bellocq’s genuine passion in life is his photography, which frustrates Violet, who though so experienced is still a child of 12 and acts that way. Hattie, now a proper lady, returns. Against her daughter’s marriage, she has come back to New Orleans to take Violet with her back to St. Louis. Realizing the young girl needs a more normal life than he can ever provide, he lets her go.

Though Bellocq was an actual person, the story of PRETTY BABY is fictional. It was a controversial film from the beginning. Even during the filming, rumors flew about what was being filmed and how explicit it would be. The controversy continued after the film’s release, some calling it child porn, mostly by folks who did not see the film.

Malle’s intent is to present a particular period and place in time. Not a good time, a sad one, but unique and one that happened. Malle and cinematographer Sven Nykvist take an unpleasant subject and handled it with taste. There is nothing neither salacious nor explicit in the film. Adding to the atmosphere is the excellent soundtrack filled with ragtime tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, and others.  

Many of Bellocq’s photographs are recreated in the film; much of his original work has been destroyed or lost. That said, some of his Storyville negatives survived over the years. What remains a mystery is why some surviving works, the original glass plates, contained damaged faces that are scratched or obliterated. Whether this happened on purpose and by whom remains unknown.

Bellocq’s work remained unknown until Lee Friedlander, then a young photographer, purchased the surviving glass negatives. He first became aware of their existence in the late 1950s. An exhibit of Bellocq’s work with new prints by Friedlander became part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1970s. Fame came to Bellocq twenty years after his death.

History know’s little about the real Ernest J. Bellocq except that he had a slight physical impairment. He was short and did not indulge in any sexual activity with the women in the profession. He’s been compared physically to Toulouse-Lautrec, but how true that is, I do not know. Bellocq spent his last years roaming the streets of New Orleans, going from one camera store to another, becoming a fixture in some establishments. His Storyville photographs were unknown to all except for a few people, and the idea he someday would be considered an artist with his work hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art would have been laughable to those who knew him.

Besides the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Louisiana Tech University honored Bellocq by naming a photography gallery after him. Bellocq’s work has also appeared in books like STORYVILLE, NEW ORLEANS As a character Bellocq has appeared in various novels, including Peter Everett’s BELLOCQ’s WOMEN.

E. J. Bellocq died in 1949. He was 76 years old.