The Models of Storyville

Compassionate prostitutes enabled 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.

According to legend, Ernest J. Bellocq was dwarfish, hunchbacked, or even a moderate hydrocephalic who hid his deformity under his hat, but he was most likely simply a rather short, eccentric introvert. In any case, he 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.

Want to learn more about Storyville and/or see Bellocq's work? Alas, the aforementioned books are no longer in print, and used copies can be expensive. But director/screenwriter Louis Malle based his 1978 film Pretty Baby on E.J. Bellocq's Storyville experiences. The movie stars Keith Carradine as the photographer, with Brooke Shields and Susan Sarandon as prostitutes. This was 13-year-old Shields' first leading role in a major motion picture. Though its portrayal of Bellocq is largely apocryphal, the film presents an accurate and thoroughly entertaining recreation of Storyville itself. It is currently available for rental or purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

Billy Murray sings Pretty Baby, the song by Storyville musician Tony Jackson after which the film was named.

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 shown at left), 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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