E. J. Bellocq (1873 – 1949) was an American professional photographer who worked in New Orleans during the early 20th century. Knowledge of E. J. Bellocq barely transcends the level of rumor. This is true in the case of many exceptional photographers of the past, and it is especially true of professional photographers, who were less likely than amateurs (and perhaps less able) to write articles for the journals, or otherwise explain and publicize their work. It is known that Bellocq was a commercial photographer in New Orleans during the early part of last century. During the First World War he was making what photographers call nuts-and-bolts pictures for a local shipbuilding firm. He is reported to have been a strange man in appearance and behavior: misshapen, anti-social, and humorless. He was regarded by his acquaintances as no more than a competent commercial photographer. As an old man, after retiring from photography business, he is said to have walked the streets of New Orleans, attempting unsuccessfully to master the intricacies of modern hand camera. But Bellocq had also had a secret life. After his death a collection of about one hundred plates was discovered in a drawer of his desk. The plates were portraits of New Orleans prostitutes, dating from about 1912. It is possible that the pictures were made as a commercial assignment, but this seems unlikely; they have about them a variety of conception and a sense of leisure in the making that identify them as work done for love. All the photographs are portraits of women. Some are nude, some dressed, others posed as if acting a mysterious narrative. Many of the negatives were badly damaged, in part deliberately, which encouraged speculation. Many of the faces had been scraped out; whether this was done by Bellocq, his Jesuit priest brother who inherited them after E. J.’s death or someone else is unknown. Bellocq is the most likely candidate, since the damage was done while the emulsion was still wet. In a few photographs the women wore masks.
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