The Storyville Portraits; Haunting pictures from New Orleans' red-light district reveal how prostitutes lived 100 years ago
John Ernest Joseph Bellocq (1873 -- 1949) was an American professional photographer who worked in New Orleans during the early 20th century. Bellocq is remembered for his haunting photographs of the prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans' legalized red light district These have inspired novels, poems and films.
From luxurious palaces to decaying shacks, a series of intimate black and white photographs taken in 1912 reveal how New Orleans' prostitutes lived more than a century ago. With his subjects in varying states of undress, photographer E. J. Bellocq took dozens of portraits inside the brothels of Storyville - the only legalized red-light district in North America, until it was shut down in 1917.
The haunting images show madams in their finest lace and fur, with several prostitutes completely nude or lounging about playing cards, reclining amongst pillows, or having a drink. Storyville was a restricted red-light district that covered 16 blocks in its entirety, situated next to New Orleans's famous French Quarter. Set up to limit prostitution to one area of New Orleans, the authorities were able to successfully monitor and regulate the practice. Visitors - mainly U.S. Navy Marines - could purchase a 'blue book' that alphabetically listed the names, addresses and races of more than 700 prostitutes; giving house descriptions, prices, particular services, and the 'stock' each brothel offered. After 20 years of operation, from 1897 to 1917, the U.S. Army and Navy demanded that Storyville be closed down, with the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, labeling the district as a 'bad influence.' The New Orleans city government strongly opposed closing the legal district. After Storyville was shut down, underground houses of prostitution were subsequently set up around the city.
No information is known about the subjects of Bellocq's Storyville photographs, who posed anonymously. More than fifty years had passed before the images were discovered in the late Sixties, by a young photographer named Lee Friedlander who had purchased and developed a collection of the late Bellocq's glass plates. The Storyville images were then shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970. According to Susan Sontag's introduction in Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the New Orleans native, who died in 1949, was 'more or less unknown before that.' He was mostly known locally as an amateur photographer, before making a living taking photographic records of landmarks, ships and machinery for local companies. Bellocq's Storyville portraits are his only personal work that is known to have survived. Sontag wrote: 'His mysterious, hauntingly beautiful portraits reached a wide audience, and Bellocq became a celebrated figure in the history of photography.'
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