A Preservation of Light. Storyville, New Orleans
With the loving but respectful touch of an admirer, Dana Nehdaran has painted the women of Storyville, New Orleans, photographed by E.J. Bellocq at the turn of the twentieth century (now exhibited at Spillman-Blackwell Fine Art, New Orleans, Louisiana). In Bellocq’s photographs and now, in Dana Nehdaran’s paintings, we see the history of a unique place inhabited by brave and beautiful women In her essay, Photographs from Storyville-Notes, Susan Sontag, the public intellectual and feminist writer described the photographs ‘How touching, good-natured and respectful these pictures are’. Dana Nehdaran has exalted that respect and added love to their translation into paint.
Long before Storyville was named and regulated, hundreds of prostitutes were transported during the reigns of the French Kings, Louis XV and Louis XVI to the new French colony of Louisiana, paying heed to the royal edict proclaiming that transport prohibited to persons of bad morals France transported those it deemed of high morals to become wives and companions of men in its colony, Louisiana.
By the 1860’s, Filles a la cassette, French girls who came with a small trunk peopled the city with many prostitutes and other women. The Woman Order, issued on May 15, 1862, curbed the interactions of different genders, classes and races in the public space. By 1892, crime had decreased considerably but municipal authorities still wanted to restrict the areas prostitutes could live and work in and resulting in the 1892 Police Ordinance No. 7325 dictating that lower class prostitutes could not occupy ground floors in Bienville, Burgundy, Customhouse, Conti, Dauphine and St. Louis streets. The Lorette Ordinance of 1857 finally passed in 1897, permitted prostitution in some areas of New Orleans and licensed women to manage and own brothels, paying a tax to the city.
Alderman Sidney Story proposed the legislation finally specifying a district ‘outside of which it will be unlawful for prostitution to be carried on’ further including the ordinance ‘be strictly enforced’. Two areas were outlined: one uptown and one downtown. Guidelines for both districts written by city Alderman Sidney Story, considering the unwillingness of Creoles to accept prostitutes within their communities, barring them from living or working in the city or French Quarter, led to Storyville’s creation in 1897. With Storyville’s inception as a regulated district, officials in New Orleans were successful in keeping brothels isolated within the district so more legitimate businesses could thrive.
Bounded by the streets of North Robertson, Iberville, Basin, and St. Louis in Faubourg Treme, prostitution was regulated in the district of Storyville in accordance with Ordinance No. 13, 032, and forbade it outside that district. Following the L’Hote Case (L’Hote vs. City of New Orleans), the regulatory ordinance fell within the competence of municipal government, and did not sanction nor license vice, so not legalizing nor declaring prostitution illegal within the district and designating red lights identifying brothels.
Within the norms of the racially segregated society, the Blue Book identified prostitutes by race: Black, White, quadroon, octoroon, Jewish (usually from Eastern Europe). Black men could only access Black, Quadroon or Octoroon women while White women were reserved for white men as written and unwritten rules regulated prostitutes and brothels.
Within the brothels, prostitutes were treated well by Madams. Although dressmakers, purveyors of food and varied products, and tradespeople throughout the city were accessible to the prostitues in the better brothels in New Orleans. They had no need to frequent businesses, since all their needs were taken care of by the madam. Doctors, contraception, midwives, lavish wardrobes, cleansing supplies, perfumes, makeup (particular to prostitutes), laundry, fresh water for washing the prostitutes and client’s bodies and food was provided as well as alcohol and opium for the clients. For these services, the Madams earned considerable amounts, allowing both prostitutes and Madams often lavish livelihoods. Girls in the “cribs” had to buy their own supplies and protect their own health and safety, but learned to do so. These working girls and working women, within rules and borders established by men ruled within their own houses, affording control within if not without their domains, and compromising with authorities to the benefit of all.
Storyville lasted until October 9, 1917, when the ordinance to close the District was adopted, and prostitutes moved to other parts of the city. Storyville was destroyed by the U.S. Navy who feared the prostitutes infecting its sailors with venereal disease as the sailors took advantage of their services so close to the docks they were leaving from to fight in World War I.
John A.J. Belloque was purported to be hydrocephalic, with a large, pointed head often concealed under a hat, and a wide, rounded bottom, centering a dwarfed figure. In conversations recorded by Lee Friedlander in 1969 and letter excerpts from Al Rose to Lee Friedlander dated July 12, 1968, Dan Lehrer, a New Orleans photographer who knew Bellocq reported that he had a “terrific head”, with a high forehead that came to a point, high pitched voice and was bald. He talked to himself and waddled like a duck when he walked. Bill Russell, the jazz musician reported some light-colored hair “what he had left” which would corroborate his French aristocratic heritage. Hydrocephaly produces cognitive impairment but also often produces sexual disfunction. The progeny of a French aristocratic Creole family, Belloque might have been more comfortable in the company of women who also had escaped difficult circumstances. Calling Bellocq a social and physical misfit, the New Orleans cornetist Johnny Wiggs reported “he had been razzed so much in his life that he didn’t have any trust in people left. He was afraid that a conversation was just going to be a continuation, eventually, of being razzed.” He photographed prostitutes who also trusted no one, but they trusted him with their depiction, and he trusted them. Johnny Wiggs goes on: “Bellocq…interests us …as an artist: a man who saw more clearly than we do, and who discovered secrets…we are persuaded that he had knowledge of the nature of other human beings.” He may have, but his photographs differ from any others because he allows, begs, the subject to pose herself, to express herself, with our resultant empathy with her. This was the only way Bellocq could photograph; he was the direct opposite of the prostitutes, physically misfit opposed to their beauty, but shared their state of mind. They suffered derision by society for the role their physical beauty allowed them; Bellocq suffered derision because his physical appearance was so appalling. With both equally suffering, his entrance into their world afforded empathy, understanding, and engagement in a conversation regarding equal derision by society outside their walls.
His practice, photographing Storyville’s prostitutes attests to his physical distance from those who made a living through physical intimacy. Photography kept him under that drape, behind an 8×10 camera, far from touching the women, effectively socially distancing himself as a hidden voyeur. But he was as hidden from the women as they were from him, not allowing his dwarfed body and pointed head to appear to them, to contrast with their beauty, or to invite criticism. Susan Sontag, who wrote the introduction to “Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville: The Redlight District of New Orleans, notes in her earlier book, “On Photography” the resemblance of a camera’s lens to a phallus. E.J. Bellocq’s camera phallus could only produce negatives that he never developed, never bringing them to final fruition.
Negatives are not final products, calling attention to Bellocq’s reluctance to close the chapter of each woman, to produce the final story. By producing only negatives, and hiding them away in a drawer, he may have wanted the “conversation” to keep going on, their relationships to evolve and not end. Bellocq damaged himself, photographed the girls not for profit or fame but to retain their images in the negatives and view their beauty through the camera’s lens. We can surmise that E.J. Bellocq may have never consummated a sex act with the prostitutes, nor had the ability or inclination to. Bellocq has often been compared to Toulouse Lautrec, as their subjects, women in brothels are the same. Lautrec’s women are active, flirtatious, and Bellocq’s contemplative. Lautrec’s women are dressed in prostitute’s or dancer’s or actress’ attire. Many of Bellocq’s women, fully clothed, one in a feathered hat, others in lace-trimmed, long-sleeved silk dresses, complemented by bead necklaces, could be depictions of high-class women, those who are nude could belong to any class. Bellocq’s photographs, part of a series, depicted a sorority of these brothel women, a community of which Bellocq has become part, photographically documenting them and his role in their community.
Although photographers of the day, making society portraits, often stood a rod between the sitter and the chair back to make the sitter’s back rigid, Bellocq’s women are turned, with no rod used, hands and arms apparent, often clasped, and ankles often crossed in a ladylike but not stiff pose. They look not at all posed, but rather caught in a candid moment, with their glance sideways, away from the camera, looking lost in a world of their own. A woman with ivory skin is casually stretched onto a chair, legs crossed and hands behind her head, in a doorway. A bob-haired woman, indicative of a flapper hairdo is in a wrinkled cotton dress, hands held together wearing simple gold bangles and a necklace, backgrounded by a draped sheet. In “Photographs from Storyville-Notes, Sontag writes of their ‘sensuality and domestic case, and tangibleness of their vanished world.’ Maybe E.J. Bellocq produced those negatives, took those photographs, to have evidence of this vanished world, and to note that these women existed in this strange world of their own making.
During an era when European modernism came to America, and Picasso’s strong geometric shapes dominated scandalous paintings like Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, Bellocq, the artist photographed a masked woman, posed like Goya’s Odalisque, in a black, triangular mask echoing her triangle of black pubic hair against white skin and black stockings. For a master of form and contrast, those segregated black forms against white skin cannot be accidental. The recall of Carnevale from that mask is here black, provocative, and mysterious as opposed to the Carnevale colors and beaded and feathered accoutrements. Yet she is nude but for mask and stockings, setting up a geometric composition and creating a hide and reveal scenario. Another black-stockinged girl, her white lace gown falling onto arms from shoulders, revealing breasts with nipples covered in lace, shows not only a state of undress but a state of half-covering and half-revealing lace. With her fearless, confrontational stare, in her boudoir, the prostitute poses only for the photographer who does not touch her, nor demand touch. He is a voyeur, hidden behind a camera, as protected as the prostitute.
The negatives were black and white. The complexion of an Octoroon or Mestizo or Caucasian cannot be easily distinguished in the negative, so the viewer must rely on features and texture of the long hair to see that bit of black in the prostitute or Madam. Hair style can distinguish the class of the woman, but updos confuse the higher class of society women with the prostitutes sporting the same hairdo, or the Madams, always in that updone hair. Only when hair is long and loose are the women identified as loose women, or prostitutes. The style of dress ranges from full nudity to full-length, embellished, imported (usually from France) designs. That woman with the white feathered hat, probably ostrich sits with hands clasped, eyes down, but legs crossed at the knee, casually juxtaposing the proper hands and hairstyle with the risqué crossed legs, exposing the left calf. Another could be a wedding portrait, with hands carrying a rose bouquet, casually assembled, and looking forlorn against a white, lace-collared dress. Only the texture of her hair reveals her race. Those roses appear in full bloom against the bosom of a beautiful woman whose eyelid covered eyes could indicate she is sleeping, as her right arm hangs, fingers distended. That same woman appears again with the same flowers, the same closed lidded eyes, but this time carrying them as she would a baby. You can almost hear her gently humming a lullaby to the package in her arms. How different this is than the lace-bonneted woman holding the dog, one hand holding the neck, so the head stands straight, while the other hand almost strangles the leg, so tight is the hold. The dog faces right, as her posed legs face left, one knee crossed over the other. It is as if the woman is posing her dog for the photograph, whereas the woman holding the ‘baby’ bundle of roses, red, the color of love, is candid.
Another dog, looking like a black pit bull, smiles for the camera, as its owner, clothed in long pantaloons looks to the left, partially hiding behind her dog. Smiles, frowns, happiness, sadness, it is all there. Perched on a Persian carpet, one rather buxom woman, in black thigh-high stockings and a slip barely covering her pelvis, is a beautiful composition of black hair, interspersed with white slip, ending in the black stockings and shoes. Black striped stockings and Persian carpet were quite expensive trappings and a sign of the wealth of the woman wearing them. The same woman is shown in another photograph completely naked, her knee on a rattan chair seat looking proudly at the camera, this time on the bare floor. One particularly interesting photograph shows a woman with her black hair caught in a low-slung bun staring contemplatively to the left, naked, showing the black marks of a knife across her chest next to her breast. What has befallen her and what has she risen above? So many women smile, so many women play. In a nod to Mardi-Gras tradition in New Orleans, a masked woman stretches out Odalisque-like on a couch, but identified not by her hidden eyes and nose, but by her white-toned body. Again, Carnival culture so fits. The woman with closed eyes and tied kerchief standing almost straight, arm resting on her lace-covered dresser top, looks tired after a hard day’s (or night’s) work. The long, straight-haired Odalisque, hands behind her head, stretches out on a couch smiling in a come hither pose in front of a locked door. The young woman with straight hair, curled at the ends, sits with legs crossed and hands on hips, looking straight at the camera. Another woman, curled hair piled high on her head, nude, casually poses on her bedsheet, between two wooden window pillars, the shadow of a bed behind her, appearing the inhabitant of a “crib”, a cheap one room house for one prostitute, exhibiting herself in the window for potential clients. Another Odalisque, perhaps the saddest looking of the photographs, stretches out on a rattan couch, unblemished body shining under blonde wavy hair, as eyes, not colored, but clearly blue in their grisaille, have an open but inward look. Exhausted, she has nothing on her mind.
What of the photographs of the parlors, bedrooms and exteriors of the fine houses and cribs? Two photographs include views of the parlor with walls covered with photographs around a painting. Those photographs include both nudes and smartly dressed women; a fireplace in one and a rolltop desk in another makes clear that the furnishings are upscale as well. Bellocq is setting the stage for the actors that follow, and they are actors, creating a world for their patrons, and for Bellocq that is different and more insular than the world outside. He never photographs the outside world, establishing the ghetto that is Storyville, its inhabitants all related in one way or another to each other. The curtained, dimly lighted interior is the result, not establishing day or night, as it is for the Prostitutes working hours. One photograph shows a mantel, with a portrait of a young woman, demurely dressed, emerging from her sheets, surrounded on three sides by framed photographs of other women, a veritable picture gallery of the women offered in that house, with significantly, a clock stopped at five minutes until midnight, the witching hour, underneath the set of portraits under the larger portrait above. These are staged photographs by a master of showing human emotions, without invading the privacy of these women, but are at the same time biographical, telling the stories of the women at different times of their lives, in different moods and circumstances. The woman standing at her mirror, back to the camera, face in the mirror, is concerned only with herself, but the photographer is concerned with her contemplation of herself, not his. An indefatigable lover, in mind if not physically, Bellocq is generous, not self-obsessed at all, but photographs for the benefit of his subject, interpreting their emotions and his in the pose and the photographic treatment of his subject.
Careful in producing the photographs to make them appear true to what he perceived was Bellocq’s intention Lee Friedlander rejected conventional developing technique using silver oxide on bromide paper limiting the tonal range. Instead, he used a nineteenth century method called P.O.P., Printing Out Paper, exposing the plates to sunlight for three to seven days, finishing with a toning bath of gold chloride, then fixing and washing the paper, ultimately producing the eighty-nine prints with the turn of the century look he believed Bellocq would have wanted.
Following E.J. Bellocq’s lead, never colorizing the photographs so retaining the confusion of skin color, portraying nearly completely in black, white and grays, relying on hair texture and style of dress to distinguish race and class, he retains an allegiance to the era they were taken, and to the photographer who produced them. By finalizing the images portraying the women, developing the glass negatives into prints, Lee Friedlander recognizes that Bellocq’s relationship with the women of Storyville is in the past, ended. This is a history of a past place and era and the women who lived and worked there.
Dana Nehdaran has translated into oil paint on canvas E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville Portraits. Bellocq’s negatives were clearly never intended to be developed into photographs. If they were to document the lives of the prostitutes, they were not intended to be made public and, not labeled in any way, did not identify the women in them. Their anonymity allowed Dana Nehdaran creative license in adapting the photographs, creating each depiction. In taking this third step to recreate the lives and images of the women of Storyville, Nehdaran’s technique is significant. Using a knifeblade and paintbrush guided by an empathetic and loving hand, he is the first to bring touch to the portraits, normalizing the relationship between male artist and female prostitute, as much as possible touching them. Nehdaran first applies sand to the underlying canvas, never quite covering the fabric. Then, he lays crackle onto the sand, designed to develop deep fissures, appearing as cracks as the crackle cures. Continuing this ancient fresco technique, he then applies the pigments using lamp black, a carbon black derived from the soot of burned candle oil often used in the nineteenth century south including New Orleans; the natural brown pigment, burnt umber for the rich browns of Black skin; iron oxide and manganese oxide that becomes warmer in degree when calcinated, effectively mixing those rich browns with a calcinated natural white. We cannot avoid the significance of sand, lamp black, Umbrian brown warmed when calcinated, or the intentional cracking of portrayed skin in some portraits while, in others, unblemished, smooth white skin prevails. We cannot avoid the appearance of underlying layers of canvas, and lack of any white pigment, allowing the canvas to show through, much as the prostitutes’ skin and history shows through the photographs and paintings, although efforts have been made, in the crackle and the paint to cover what is not exposed, to pass. The final medley of colors that is New Orleans, burnt umber and copper leaf fixed for the color of the red roses and verdigris for the green leaves recall the coloration of the skin and roses held by the Black maid in Manet’s “Olympia” where a Black maid attends a white woman, clearly defining class and racial roles.
Each participant in the history of the portraits infuses them with the vision of the subject and his own. The entire set expresses the emotion and history linking photographer, photographic printer, and painter, serving as mixed portraits and auto-portraits. As much as Bellocq posed the women of Storyville and staged their surroundings, Bellocq photographed but could not change the colors in the glass plate negatives. Friedlander refused to, using the P.O.P., technique that infused the photographs with a golden hue. Nehdaran adopted the golden brown and blacks of Friedlander’s prints refusing to add white pigment, refusing to allow the subjects to pass, though the canvas seeping through might have appeared white. Nehdaran manipulates the paint, charges the colors and infuses the texture to philosophize about the conditions of women in Storyville, their need to conceal and announce.
Nehdaran, a handsome man, is bald to a great degree, hair remaining on the sides. Neither his hair, originally blonde, his green-blue eyes nor his skin color gives away his Jewish Iranian heritage. Jews, usually of Eastern European heritage, were the fourth category in the Blue Book listings of prostitutes in Storyville. He can no doubt identify with the mixed racial boundaries and consequent employment restrictions of the women in Storyville as numerous lists attest to both the Jewish and Black drops of blood identifying people, barring them from and ghettoizing them in housing and employment. Storyville was a ghetto where prostitution, an acceptable form of employment, regulated and remunerated was racially stratified, with white women only available to white men, and Jews, Octoroons, Quadroons, and Blacks, listed as such in the Blue Book, identified and segregated.
The story of Storyville’s prostitutes is one told by a physically damaged Creole photographer, featuring women of beauty and damaged circumstances, showing the economic and social power exerted by men to control and corral the power and comeraderie in the sex industry by women and to control their own bodies and minds. These photographs and the paintings after the photographs remind us that sex is not only physical, but very much an act of mind and empathy. In a place where Carnival allows participants to assume roles that are not theirs, the costly clothes of prostitutes, their surroundings, the trappings of power and wealth are masquerades perpetuated by Bellocq, Friedlander and Nehdaran. Bellocq’s photographs show what he and the prostitutes wanted them to be, and as one associating with them, what he wanted to be, part of their milieu. Similarly, the white creaminess of their bodies, and the Black coffee-colored skin against perfectly curled hair was a world he may have wished to enter and could imagine. In this exhibition, Nehdaran’s portraits and Storyville itself refuses to enable a fantasy of white male power, instead emphasizing true beauty of body and soul. Nehdaran’s paintings are not pornographic, do not titillate, but rather demand empathy and concern. In New Orleans, the French influenced South where women were deemed genteel, and prostitutes were photographed as non-aggressive, so as not to disturb the gendered order, Nehdaran’s portraits quietly influence a new order, portraying an old, accepted way of life where women held power over their bodies, minds and lives. All of them, Gertrude Anderson, Countess Willie Piazza, who was not a Countess, Mme. Lulu White, the wealthiest Madam of the grandest house in Storyville, Mahogany Hall, who was neither white nor French and insisted on her West Indian heritage, Ms. Ella Schwartz, Gertrude Dix who married political boss Tom Anderson, gaining a fortune, Emma Johnson, lesbian owner of the “House of All Nations”, and all amusements, who identified herself as the “Parisian Queen of America” though born in the Louisiana bayou of Acadian forebears, Adele, possibly E.J. Bellocq’s only lover, the many unidentified prostitutes in Storyville, E.J. Bellocq, Lee Friedlander and Dara Nehdaran were and are of their times, and now, beautifully portrayed, of ours.
While many might think that the issues at the turn of the 20th century have seen progress, we find ourselves well into the 21st century facing political and social attacks as autonomy over the individual’s body is threatened, income of the working class is often insufficient to cover basic needs, racial animosity is high, identity questioned, and voting and representation at all levels is challenged. What is left and in fact mirrors the plight of Storyville women, and in fact all of humanity since the beginning of time, is the human resilience and ability to thrive while being constrained and having limited options. The conversation is neither historical nor obsolete as it continues to be relevant today.