E.J. Bellocq (1873-1949) remains an ambiguous figure in history. Following his death in 1949, eighty-nine glass plate negatives of portraits of female prostitutes from New Orleans’ Storyville district were found in his desk. All of the images were taken circa 1912.
Photographer Lee Friedlander acquired them and made contact prints of the 8 x 10 negatives on the same gold toned printing-out paper that Bellocq used in his rare prints. Friedlander is credited with salvaging and promoting the work. The mystery surrounding the photographs and the personality of E.J. Bellocq is furthered by the fact that many of the plates were cracked, scratched, or damaged at the time when Friedlander acquired them.
E.J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits and Bellocq are two monographs that illustrate this work. (Text courtesy Fraenkel Gallery.)
Prostitution, of course, has long been a fascination of artists. Toulouse Lautrec, for example, famously lived on the top floor of a bordello in Paris and enjoyed access to the services of the girls who worked there. They called him, reputedly, ‘the Teapot’ because he was very short but had a prodigiously large penis.
Like Lautrec, Bellocq seems to have been fascinated by the ambiance surrounding houses of prostitution. These are places where the relationship between men and women is simply defined. The interaction is a financial one, the exchange of services for money. In this, the broader relationship between men and women is reduced to its essence: access to sex is provided in return for a specified and agreed good.
Naturally, feminists detest this but it is important to realise that feminists do not care about the individual women. They are concerned that the very existence of prostitution means that the way that they provide sex cannot be controlled in the way that they wish it to be. They know perfectly well that if sex can just be bought, it will not take men long to realise that women’s power over them is far more limited than they think. Why would a man put up with a wife’s moods and, worse, periodically and arbitrarily switching off the supply of sex in order to demonstrate her power, if the man can just go down tot he local brothel and buy some.
At a stroke, women’s power over men vanishes and with it, the power over society that they have always exercised.
Bellocq gives an insight into another, simpler, world, in which women and men are equals and men are not demeaned for desiring sex.