Sunday, June 3, 2018

E. J.Bellocq's Storyville Portraits at NOMA

Almost lost amid the New Orleans Museum of Art's current exhibitions is a mini-expo of 10 prints by one of this city's most mysterious artists, E. J. Bellocq. An industrial and architectural photographer by trade, Bellocq attained mythic status as the result of a secret pursuit: his eerily compelling portraits of the ladies who worked in the Storyville bordello district in the early twentieth century. Found in a French Quarter junk store and researched by legendary local jazz buffs Al Rose and Lorenz Borenstein, the glass plate negatives that eventually led to Bellocq's 1970 landmark exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art took on a life of their own when printed by Lee Friedlander, whose own photographs in the museum's atrium and upstairs galleries reveal his formative relationship with this city and its culture, especially jazz, Storyville's enduring contribution to American music.

Over the years, the Bellocq legend inspired books and movies -- most notably Pretty Baby by the French filmmaker Louis Malle -- but who was he? Text panels attempt to provide a new perspective on  the details, but these haunting portraits seem imbued with a will of their own, as if Bellocq's sitters are still insistently telling us how they saw themselves, or perhaps how they wanted to be seen. So a lady draped in pearls and white furs, top, conveys an aura of gaudy propriety, like a “good” girl who just happens to be very available, while another far bolder personality in a black mask flashes a lascivious grin and a matching thatch of pubic hair.

A seated figure in a full body stocking gazes imperiously back at us, but a seated figure in bold striped stockings gazes at a glass, presumably containing the rye whiskey in a bottle on a table next to her. Whatever their intended purpose, these haunting images evoke the inner lives of their subjects, making them an essential component of this city's profoundly psychological contribution to the history of photography – a history beautifully explored in NOMA photography curator Russell Lord's imposing new book, Looking Again, featuring emblematic works selected from the museum's massive international archive of over 12,000 historic photographs. ~Bookhardt / Attributed To: Storyville Portraits by E. J. Bellocq, Through Aug. 12, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park.