In 1897, New Orleans, Louisiana passed a law that confined and regulated prostitution into a specified district of the city. Named after the alderman Sidney Story who proposed the idea, the district “Storyville” was home to legalized prostitution from 1898 until 1917, when the federal government and the Navy shut it down as ‘bad influence’ during WWI.
Ernest J. Bellocq was born in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Although he was of a wealthy white Creole family, he made living primarily through photography, establishing a studio and taking pictures of landmarks and of ships and machinery for local companies. However, Bellocq is more famous for photographs taken of the hidden side of the city, from the opium dens in Chinatown to the prostitutes of Storyville.
Although somewhat of a dandy, Bellocq was a hideous hydrocephalic who lived lone and acquired a reputation for eccentricity and unfriendliness. He frequented brothels, as if he could identify himself only in such community. Although there were no evidence that he used their services, Bellocq move freely among the prostitutes and take photographs, mostly nudes, which are considered among the finest works of photographic art nineteenth century America produced. Many of the negatives were deliberately damaged (perhaps by Bellocq himself) to conceal the posers’ identities.
Bellocq was eventually forgotten and most of his collection was destroyed in the decades following his death. His Jesuit brother was responsible for destruction of most of his work. However, some photographic plates were later found concealed in a sofa, and in 1966, photographer Lee Friedlander purchased the surviving 89 plates, and had them displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1970. In 1978, the film Pretty Baby, based on E.J. Bellocq’s life, was released.