Storyville – known simply to locals as “the District”- was the red-light district of New Orleans, Louisiana, from 1897 through 1917. The moniker came from city alderman Sidney Story, who wrote the legislation setting up the district after studying similar models around the ports of Europe. Originally bounded by Iberville, Basin, St. Louis, and N. Robertson streets and adjacent to a main railway station, it quickly became a noted attraction.
The saloons and whorehouses ranged from cheap 50 cent “cribs” to elegant mansions charging up to $10 for an evening’s entertainment. Black and white brothels coexisted although black men were barred from legally purchasing any of the services: separate brothels serving blacks operated a short distance uptown.
Storyville was shut down by the federal government during World War I (over the strong objections of the New Orleans city government), heralding the emergence of an illegal and unregulated prostitution underground. But the reputation endured and the district continued in a more subdued state through the 1920s, with various dance halls, cabarets and restaurants. Speakeasies, gambling joints and prostitution were also regularly found in the area despite repeated police raids.
Almost all the buildings in the former District were demolished in the 1930s, including the old mansions along Basin Street which were some of the finest structures in the city at the time. A newly moralized city government did all it could to blot the notorious district from memory; Basin Street was renamed “North Saratoga” (although the historic name was restored some 20 years later). Today the area is occupied by the Iberville Housing Projects near the French Quarter.
John Ernest Joseph (E.J.) Bellocq was born in 1873 to a wealthy white Creole family in the French Quarter: He began his professional career by photographing landmarks, ships and machinery for local companies but his personal interests lay in the more private aspects of local culture, notably various Chinatown opium dens and the prostitutes of Storyville.
During his lifetime this passion was shared only with a few close friends; in fact after his death in 1949 most of his negatives and prints were destroyed, and the few surviving negatives were found hidden in a sofa. Lee Friedlander eventually gained possession of the works and in 1970 published a selection of the prints he had made from the negatives in the book Storyville Portraits. A more extensive collection of Friedlander’s prints, entitled Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, was published in 1996.
All the photographs are portraits of women. Some are nude, some dressed, others posed as if acting a mysterious narrative. Many of the negatives were badly damaged, in part deliberately, and the faces were often scraped out; whether this was done by Bellocq himself is still debated but since much of the damage was done while the emulsion was still wet it seems probable.
Bellocq died in 1949 and was buried in Saint Louis Cemetery in New Orleans. The E. J. Bellocq Gallery of Photography at Louisiana Tech University is named in his honor.
I first discovered Bellocq’s photographs through Friedlander’s book some decades ago and have been fascinated by the intimate, simple portraits of these anonymous women from another era. The following images represent a fairly comprehensive collection from various internet sources. I have edited them for resolution, exposure and sharpness in order to provide what I believe are the best available digital reproductions, however the original defects from the negatives are left intact beyond minimal dust removal and they are uncropped from the versions I have available.