Jess Lincoln ’20
Trained in commercial photography and posthumously gaining notoriety for his artistic portraiture of sex workers in early twentieth-century New Orleans, E. J. Bellocq created work that spurs discussion about empowerment and identity. This photograph is intimate; we are voyeurs of a private moment, but when considering that the image was rediscovered and only printed decades later,(1) I realize the woman was not necessarily in control. The image documents her body but not her name or identity.
Many sex workers in New Orleans at this time were accustomed to being photographed, largely for “Blue Book” publications that served as a kind of travel guide to the city-sanctioned area where sex work was legal, called “Storyville.”(2) Blue Books advertised pleasure in many forms, placing names and faces of sex workers next to promotions for cigar and liquor brands and high-end rentable rooms, perhaps suggesting the women were simply another commodity or part of the decor.
The unidentified woman’s affable disposition coupled with a homey interior breaks the boundaries of the frame; with her raised hand holding a glass, she seemingly invites her audience to step in for a drink. But this invitation has darker undertones. After researching Bellocq, the Blue Books, and early twentieth-century Storyville, I no longer saw a woman at ease in a home setting, but rather, a woman in a room staged to lure clients. The presumed moment of intimacy is transformed into a transient and impersonal transaction. Where I once heard the clinking of a glass, I now listen to the sound of customers trudging up and down the stairs.
Fighting the urge to see sex work as a way for women to take control of their finances, I am reminded of the realities of women being pushed to the economic fringes when I look closer at her clothing, which appears to be a blanket thrown over her stockings and shoes. During this era, sex work was not an independent means of earning money. Between paying rent to brothel owners, general living expenses, and for higher-class sex workers, the expenses of maintaining a fashionable and desirable exterior, even the highest-end prostitutes struggled to make ends meet.(3) There is something taboo about sex work in our society, and to see it memorialized in a century-old photograph, it seems like an attempt to access the past through the portrait of this woman is further exploiting her body to satisfy our own curiosities. If exhibited in a museum next to the label Untitled, staged for patrons to stop and admire or just pass by, what would it mean to use this photograph to explore the agency women have over their bodies?