John Ernest Joseph Bellocq (1873 – 1949) was an unassuming commercial photographer based in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of Bellocq’s work was photographing ships and local businesses but in recent times some of his more risqué work has been uncovered.
These are nude portraits of prostitutes in New Orleans. A lot of speculation surrounds these works; why did Bellocq take these photographs, how did he manage to persuade the women to pose, why do they seem so at ease in this somewhat compromising situation, and – the biggest question – why have some of them had their faces scratched out? This could have been a simple way of protecting the women’s identities; but then why have only some of the faces been obscured by the savage black scrawls? There is speculation that it was done by his Jesuit priest brother when he inherited the negatives, but this is unlikely as the damage appears to have been done when the emulsions were wet.
Perhaps it was done by Bellocq himself as an act of objectification and to represent his dominance over them. But the idea of Bellocq treating these women as objects seems very unlikely too for if we look at the poses and expressions of the women in these photographs they appear to be relaxed and at ease, enjoying themselves even. It is common for artists to have much more than a professional relationship with their models and it is often how they achieve such intimate works. Yet the profession of these women involves exposing themselves and surrendering their bodies to any client. Perhaps these are well rehearsed expressions for a paying customer.
Although the intentions of the frantic black scribbles on Bellocq’s works remain unclear, the visual effect is jarring. The marks are aggressive and it is hard not to wonder as to their purpose. Perhaps these images inspired the work of Francesca Woodman, there are certainly parallels in terms of aesthetic and content.
I will consider the potential of these types of detraction techniques as well as the previously mentioned photo-montage. By deliberately damaging and detracting an image the actions become part of the message.