Text from John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art
Our knowledge of E. J. Bellocq barely transcends the level of rumor. This is true in the case of many exceptional photographers of the past, and it is especially true of professional photographers, who were less likely than amateurs (and perhaps less able) to write articles for the journals, or otherwise explain and publicize their work.
It is known that Bellocq was a commercial photographer in New Orleans during the early part of this century. During the First World War he was making what photographers call nuts-and-bolts pictures for a local shipbuilding firm. He is reported to have been a strange man in appearance and behavior: misshapen, anti-social, and humorless. He was regarded by his acquaintances as no more than a competent commercial photographer. As an old man, after retiring from the photography business, he is said to have walked the streets of New Orleans, attempting unsuccessfully to master the intricacies of the modern hand camera.
But Bellocq had also had a secret life. After his death a collection of about one hundred plates was discovered in a drawer of his desk. The plates were portraits of New Orleans prostitutes. dating from about 1912. It is possible that the pictures were made as a commercial assignment, but this seems unlikely; they have about them a variety of conception and a sense of leisure in the making that identify them as work done for love.
A good photographic portrait is the result of a successful collaboration between the photographer and the sitter. The remarkable individuality of Bellocq's portraits is the individuality of his subjects. With Bellocq's help. the women have realized themselves in pictures.
The prostitute portraits comprise the only fragment of Bellocq's work to have survived. About fifteen years after Bellocq's death the plates were shown to the photographer Lee Friedlander, who greatly admired them and later bought them. Since none of Bellocq's own prints survived to serve as models, Friedlander printed the plates in a process widely used sixty years ago, and appropriate to the character of Bellocq's negatives. Friedlander was thus the third collaborator to contribute to the work reproduced here.
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