E.J. Bellocq (American, 1873-1949) Woman in body stocking, ca. 1912 printed later by Lee Friedlander, gelatin silver print from original negative, George Eastman House

Ernest J. Bellocq was a nothing if not enigmatic. A commercial photographer working in the early part of the twentieth-century in New Orleans, he would have remained in relative obscurity if not for a collection of about 100 glass plate negatives that was found more than thirty years after his death. The negatives, which have been dated to around 1912, are unusual in their depiction of the women of Storyville—New Orleans’ red light district. These women seem comfortable in front of the camera, and although many are partially or completely undressed, Bellocq maintains a certain distance from and respect for his subjects.

The negatives were part of a personal project of Bellocq’s and are dated to around 1912. They have raised more questions about the photographer than they have answered. Somewhat of a dandy in his younger years, Bellocq is said to have become eccentric and even unfriendly in his old age. A bit of a recluse, he was prone to wandering the streets of New Orleans with his camera. It is unknown why he took the Storyville portraits. In many of these images, the woman’s face has been scratched off of the negative, thought to be done by Bellocq himself. This act, as well as the unknown identity of the women, only increases the mystery surrounding the Storyville portraits.

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