The Models of Storyville
Compassionate prostitutes enabled the deformed photographer E. J. Bellocq to create one of the most acclaimed collections of historic photographs in the United States.
In 1897, the city council of New Orleans, Louisiana passed a unique ordinance that confined and regulated prostitution within a specified district of the city. Nicknamed "Storyville" after Alderman Sidney Story (who proposed the ordinance), this district was home to legalized prostitution from January 1, 1898 until November 12, 1917.
Ernest J. Bellocq was a hideous hydrocephalic who earned a modest living as a commercial photographer in New Orleans during these years. Like Toulouse-Lautrec in France, Bellocq frequented brothels, where he was accepted as a fellow outcast by sympathetic prostitutes. Though Bellocq did not--perhaps could not--partake of their services, these kind ladies allowed him to move freely among them and take photographs for his own collection. Though many are nudes, Bellocq's portraits reveal a simple frankness and respect for his subjects that runs completely counter to pornography. They number among the finest works of photographic art this country has produced, and are the only true-to-life visual record of this extraordinary part of American history.
Alas, Bellocq was forgotten and most of his collection destroyed in the decades following his death. But in 1966, photographer Lee Friedlander, recognizing them for the masterpieces they were, purchased the surviving 89 glass plates. In 1970, E. J. Bellocq finally received the fame he deserved when New York's Museum of Modern Art displayed his work and published a book of high-quality prints of many of the plates. A revised and expanded edition containing 52 of Bellocq's images, called Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans, was published by Random House in 1996.
For those who have the requisite patience, the best way to discover still more about the world
of Storyville, its early jazz composers, E.J. Bellocq, and the "working girls" is the
book Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious
Red-Light District by Al Rose. Its 225 large-format pages (about 8.5" by 11") feature 16 of
Bellocq's best works (including the one visible on its cover), along with countless other
photos, business cards, government documents, newspaper articles, maps, interviews, brochures,
etc. recounting in-depth everything there is to know about Storyville. Indeed, the data in this
book formed the basis for the movie Pretty Baby. The sheer
volume of Storyville, New Orleans can be daunting, but Al Rose's crisp, enthusiastic
text helps keep up reader interest. To top it off, this perennial favorite--reprinted many
times by The University of Alabama Press since 1974--has another welcome
attribute: a very reasonable price.
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Storyville, New Orleans
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