BELLOCQ: Photographs From Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans, with text by John Szarkowski, introduction by Susan Sontag. (Random House: $29.95, 83 pp.) E.J. Bellocq made his remarkable photographs of the Storyville prostitutes in 1912, but they weren't discovered till years after his death. In 1966, photographer Lee Friedlander bought all 89 prints and showed 34 of them at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this new collection of prints (about 20 have been added since the 1970 show), Friedlander has tried to reproduce Bellocq's work exactly, down to duplicating the size of the original glass plates.
We know little about Bellocq, a short, private man with a swollen head, and even less about the women who were his models (only Adele, whom he may have loved, is named). The interviews in the back of the book are valuable, but they reveal more about the people speaking than about Bellocq himself.
The photos leave no doubt that Bellocq cared about capturing each woman's essence, though intentionally or not he gave precedence to their mystery and the mystery of sex itself. Some of the naked women are masked, and the faces of a dozen or so have been entirely scratched away. (No one knows who disfigured the plates, though many, including me, believe it was Bellocq himself.) These headless bodies may be the strongest of all, a man's totally unwitnessed, keyhole look at a woman completely exposed. Still, these are not the passive, spineless nudes so common at the turn of the century. Bellocq may have needed to capture and control these women. His black-and-white photos, however, rescue and release their mystery to the world.