Ernest J. Bellocq (1873-1949) was a professional photographer who worked in New Orleans during the early 20th century.
John Ernest Joseph Bellocq was born in a white Creole family in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Bellocq is best remembered for his photos of the prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans' legalized red light district. The photographs show the subjects with grace and beauty not expected from their seemy context, though many also have a notable touch of melancholy. These photos which were little known during his lifetime; he made his living mostly by making photographic records of ships, machinery, and New Orleans Mardi Gras floats.
Bellocq was burried in Saint Louis Cemetery #3 in New Orleans.
After his death most of his work was destroyed. However, a collection of glass negatives was later found concealed in a sofa. These were photographs of prostitutes who worked in the legalised brothels of Storyville around 1912. Some were nude, some dressed respectably, others posed as if acting a mysterious narrative. In 1971 a selection of the photographs were published in a book entitled Storyville Portraits. They had been made into distinctive prints by Lee Friedlander, using the whole of the negatives.
These photographs were immediately acclaimed for their unique poignancy and beauty. Many of the negatives were badly damaged, in part deliberately. This encouraged speculation about the reasons why they had been taken and later violated. Many of the faces had been scraped out; whether this was done by E. J. Bellocq himself, his Jesuit priest brother who inherited them after E. J.'s death, or someone else is unknown. In a few photos the women wore masks on the original photos.
The mysteries surrounding Bellocq have inspired several fictional versions of his life, notably the film Pretty Baby, in which Bellocq was played by Keith Carradine. He is also a central character in Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter, and in several collections of poems.
The influence of Bellocq's violated negatives and violated bodies can also be seen in the work of the photographer Joel Peter Witkin.
Some prints made by Bellocq himself have since surfaced. These are far more conventional than the full negative prints made by Friedlander. It is likely that the faces were scraped out for the same reason that masks were used - to protect the identities of the women.