Photographer Ernest J. Bellocq was born in 1873 in New Orleans. Beyond that, very little is known about this man who remains shrouded in mystery except that he was the scion of a very prominent white Creole family. When his brother Leo became a Jesuit priest, his brother E. J. remained at the family's French Quarter estate, which was within walking distance from the infamous Storyville, New Orleans' red light district. Becoming a photographer around age 25, Mr. Bellocq was an easily-recognized presence around town with his flamboyant attire that often consisted of red silk ties and handkerchiefs and monogrammed jewelry. He also reportedly suffered from dwarfism and had a large, misshapen head.
After World War I, Mr. Bellocq found steady employment as an industrial photographer for a shipbuilding firm located on Canal Street, but spent his leisure time photographing neighborhood churches and the children he always loved. Like with his personal life, there are few details of Mr. Bellocq's professional career, except that it was also characterized by eccentricity and less-than-memorable photographic technique. According to legend, he showed a local acquaintance few of the documentary style photographs he took of New Orleans' Chinatown district while on one of his nocturnal walks, which included an opium den, and the pictures were far more impressive than his industrial or commercial photography.
From there, Mr. Bellocq seemed to make it his crusade to photograph the seamier side of his hometown. He began photographing the Storyville prostitutes in a manner that was straightforward and realistic rather than erotically suggestive. Even though the subjects are scantily clad, they are hardly pornographic. They were posed, sometimes smiling, and were photographed in natural lighting. They boldly face the camera in a manner that suggests they had complete trust in their photographer. Mr. Bellocq's relationships with these women and how he managed to gain their trust is still one of the many mysteries associated with this enigmatic man. It is not known whether the Storyville photographs were commissioned works or if they were simply examples of Mr. Bellocq's secret life. There is no evidence that Mr. Bellocq intended his photographs to serve as any type of social commentary. They represent a social subculture in which the photographer felt comfortable and felt at peace. This calm is evident in the tone of the pictures and in the expressions of the subjects.
In his later years, Mr. Bellocq struggled with obesity and serious health issues including diabetes. However, he continued his frequent jaunts through the streets of New Orleans accompanied by his ever-present camera. In the fall of 1949, he was discovered collapsed on one of these streets with that camera still clutched in his hand. E. J. Bellocq died shortly thereafter, still virtually unknown outside of his hometown. What should have been the end to his story turned out to be only the beginning. While going through his personal effects, a friend discovered 90 glass plates of Storyville. Photographer Lee Friedlander purchased the plates in 1967 and made prints of them, which were featured in a 1970 Museum of Modern Art exhibit. Mr. Bellocq was further immortalized in Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby. Today, Ernest J. Bellocq is interred in a family tomb near the New Orleans Museum of Art, where many of his photographs presently reside.
2002 American Photo (New York: Hachette Filipacchi Media), p. 76.
2000 The History of Photography: An Overview (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press), pp. 47-48.
2012 The Last Days of Ernest J. Bellocq (URL: http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_10/gallery/bellocq/index.htm).
1971 Life Magazine, Vol. LXX (New York: Time, Inc.), p. 7.
2011 Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), p. 385.
2012 World Film Locations: New Orleans (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books), p. 27.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera