Lot 132
  • 132

E. J. BELLOCQ Storyville Prostitute, New Orleans

50,000 - 70,000 USD
50,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • E. J. Bellocq
  • Storyville Prostitute, New Orleans
  • Gelatin silver print
  • 8 by 5 in. (20.3 by 12.7 cm.)
framed, circa 1912, printed no later than 1949


Estate of Louis Danzig

Sotheby's New York, 31 October 1989, Sale 5921, Lot 93A

Private collection

Christie's New York, 29 April 1999, Sale 9150, Lot 176

Catalogue Note

At the turn of the 20th Century in the years preceding Prohibition, professional photographer Ernest J. Bellocq made a series of portraits of women in brothels throughout Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans.  While prostitution had been legalized in Storyville in 1898, nude photographs were illicit and Bellocq’s portraits provide rare insight into this secret world.   

This body of work remained unseen until 1970 when John Szarkowski introduced it to the world with E. J. Bellocq: Storyville, Photographs from the New Orleans Red-Light District, Circa 1912, an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, of 34 modern prints from Bellocq’s original glass-plate negatives.  In the press release, John Szarkowski commented, ‘Bellocq – whoever he was – interests us not as an object of pity but as an artist; a man who saw more clearly that we do, and who drove discovered secrets . . . Even if the pictures reproduced here had been widely known a half century ago, they would not have changed the history of photography, for they did not involve new concepts, only an original sensibility.  Seeing his pictures we are persuaded that he had knowledge of the nature of other human beings.’  A variant of the photograph offered here (reproduced as plate 28 in the 1970 exhibition catalogue) depicts the same woman with cascading long hair, locket necklace, and bangle bracelets.  In that photo, she stands in profile, her shoes removed and one knee propped on a carved wood chair.

A commercial photographer by trade of diverse subjects such as ships, funeral plots, and class portraits, Bellocq was an enigma both in life and in memoriam.  Contemporary descriptions of Bellocq (that have clearly mutated over the years into the realm of caricature) suggest the photographer was oddly shaped, dwarf-like, stooped, and mentally unstable.  Records show that Bellocq was from a prosperous family and was gainfully employed for nearly all his career.  Bellocq died unmarried and the sole heir of his estate was a brother.  For some years Bellocq’s glass-plate negatives were in storage in a small antique shop run by Sal Ruiz.  Subsequently they were in the hands of New Orleans antique and junk dealer Larry Borenstein before finally being acquired in 1967 by photographer Lee Friedlander, who made the modern prints for 1970 exhibition and helped reintroduce the world to this forgotten part of Louisiana history. 

Bellocq’s Storyville photographs served as the inspiration for the books Coming Through Slaughter (Michael Ondaatje), Bellocq’s Women (Peter Everett), and Bellocq’s Ophelia (Natasha Trethewey), as well as Louis Malle’s 1978 film Pretty Baby.

Early prints of any generation by Bellocq are extremely rare.  The photograph offered here is believed to be the only early print to have appeared at auction, and no other early print of the image has been located.  When this photograph was originally sold in these rooms in 1989, its cataloguing indicated that it was originally in the collection of Louis Danzig, a former cameraman for Pathé and Movietone News.  Although little is known of Danzig, it is believed that he knew Bellocq and received three early prints directly from him.  Another early print with this provenance is now in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2005.100.130), originally acquired by the Gilman Paper Company Collection in the early 1980s. These three prints – one of which is unlocated – are the earliest known prints.