I recently watched the short documentary (slightly over one hour) called “Men at Lunch.” It relates the story about one of the most iconic photographs ever made. The film explores the origin, the meaning, and the impact the photo has had over its long history.
We see eleven men perched high up on a steel girder taking a lunch break while working on the construction of a building today we know as 30 Rockefeller Center. Who was the photographer? Who are the construction workers? And why is the photograph so relevant all these years later. These are some of the questions asked and much remains unknown. Except for two men, none have been identified, though there have been many claims otherwise, but only two of the men have been verified. That said, the photograph says a lot about the history of New York City, its immigrants who worked the dangerous jobs, and the American dream.
“Men at Lunch” is streaming on KANOPY and is available on YouTube.
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.
Since COVID arrived on the scene my photography has been limited, mostly to my two cats. They are an endless joy of activity and opportunity. Still, all other photography has been on hold. Both my wife and I have underlying conditions so we are super careful where we go. Let’s just say the supermarket and doctors are not very photographic.
This brings me to the other day. My wife was preparing dinner and I was setting up the table and closing the blinds. That’s when I spotted the sky. Florida is known, when the conditions are right, for spectacular sunsets. This night it was perfect. I grabbed my cellphone and told my wife, I’ll be right back. I fortunately hit the right moment. The sky was a spectacular orange, and I had a panoramic view right outside my house. I snapped two pictures and felt the rush I always do when I capture the perfect moment in time. That’s a feeling I had not felt in a long time.
The photo here I thought was the better of the two. Nothing was photo shopped. It was nature at its best.
Check out my new collection of not so cozy, dark Christmas short stories, Tis the Season. Only .99 cent at Amazon
Creativity comes from many sources and directions: newspaper articles, movies, dreams, travel, photographs, talking to others and more. Writers observe as do photographers and other artists. To me, that is the key to creativity… observation. You see something, you hear something and that gets your creative juices flowing. I have been inspired to write by my own photographs. For example, the photo below was taken at the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. The photograph inspired a story called The Bombay Hook Incident.
A little background. My wife and I went on a photo trip with photographer John Slonina, and The Bombay National Wildlife Refuge was one of our stops. As any photographer knows, early mornings are a great time to shoot, especially landscape and wildlife. While driving around the refuge, we came across a tent near some sand dunes. Apparently, some people camped there overnight. I doubt it’s legal to do so, but there they were. The scenery, the beautiful morning skies, the abundance of wildlife got me thinking, and I wrote this story about a female photographer out there alone in the early morning who runs across a shady individual looking to steal her photography equipment. It was published last year in the online A Million andOne Magazine. You can read it here.
This leads me to my new collection of short stories, The Late Show and Other Tales of Celluloid Malice. One story, The Butcher’s Kid, is about an older teenage boy who helps his father get out of a jam with a local hoodlum. I was thinking about my old Brooklyn neighborhood and a butcher shop that my mother frequented. The butcher had a daughter about my age. We both attended the same junior high school and shared a class or two together. The girl was pretty, and I admittedly had a bit of a crush on her. That’s probably the reason it remains a memory. Using that as the background, except for the girl who is not in the story, I came up with this short tale of a father and son protecting their turf and themselves.
The Butcher’s Kid is one of eight short stories, all with two things in common – Movies and Malice! Murder, revenge, greed and more are now playing. These stories may make you change your movie-going habits. Available now for pre-order. Due on March 3rd.
With only a few days left in 2019, I thought I would look back a bit and share a few small accomplishments.
I sold the use of one of my photographs (Colburn’s Shoe Store) for use in an ad for Belfast, Maine realtor Martha Martin in The Republican Journal Newspaper.
A photograph I took way back in 1976 of the Baronet/Coronet theaters in New York City is used in Abel Ferrara’s recent documentary, The Projectionist which debuted at this year’s New York Film Festival.
Interviewed by Jeremy Richey for Soledad Arts Journal. Available at Amazon.
Looking Forward to the New Year
My latest collection of short stories, THE LATE SHOW: AND OTHER TALES OF CELLULOID MALICE will come out in the first half of 2020. As you can easily deduct, all the stories have a common theme. More details to follow.
My thanks to all who have stopped by my little abode. Here’s wishing for all a happy, healthy and peaceful 2020.
Issue 3 of the independent Arts Journal Soledad is now available on Amazon! It’s jammed packed with tributes to Blondie and the late Carol Lynley. Short fiction by Les Bohem and Robert Monell. Essays by Tara Hanks, Dave Stewart, Marcelline Block, Laura Kupp Beerman, and Jeremy R Richey. Poetry by Emily Claire Bryant. Photography by Amy Pangburn and interviews with Steven Darrow, Teenage Cavegirl and yours truly!