Donning striking stockings and a saccharine smirk, an early twentieth-century prostitute is captured in the midst of raising a glass—a toast? Her affable disposition and posture break the boundaries of the frame, and she seemingly invites her audience to step into the homey interior of the brothel. Many prostitutes in New Orleans at this time were accustomed to being photographed, largely due to Blue Book publications that served as a kind of travel guide to Storyville, a city-sanctioned area where prostitution was legal. Blue Book pages promoted pleasure in many forms, placing names and faces of these women next to ads for cigars, liquor, and snapshots of high-end rentable rooms, perhaps suggesting the women were simply another commodity or part of the decor.
Does this image reduce the sitter to a pleasurable something like the objects surrounding her, cohabitating a room that might not even belong to her? This particular image never found its way into a Blue Book; instead, it was tucked away in photographer E. J. Bellocq’s desk drawer not to be found until decades later. It is a document of her body but not her name. Are we asking too much of her image to serve as the key to our curiosities?
The Hyde Cabinet, named in honor of Megan Hyde, former Tang Educator for College and Public Programs and Curatorial Assistant, is curated by members of the Tang’s Student Advisory Council. Hyde Cabinet #3: From Brothel to Museum is organized by Jess Lincoln ’20.
From the exhibition: Hyde Cabinet #3: From Brothel to Museum (May 2 – September 1, 2019)
From the exhibition: Where Words Falter: Art and Empathy (July 9 – December 18, 2022)