Warning: This article contains nudity and may not be appropriate for work environments.
A photographer by the name of E.J. Bellocq was born in New Orleans in August 1873 to an aristocratic family. He was born with a condition similar to artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, which left Bellocq with a stunted, misshapen physique and a forehead that came to a point. His affliction cast him as an outsider, and as such, fellow outsiders welcomed him into their circles.
Although he made his living as a commercial photographer, snapping photos of ships and machinery, Bellocq would make frequent, furtive trips to New Orleans' red-light district, called Storyville. There, he took countless portraits of sex workers in their homes or the brothels at which they worked.
Bellocq's photos are exceptional in that they depict their subjects not as one-dimensional pinups or targets for the male gaze, but as real people on the job. Some women are fully dressed, lounging in their homes, tinkering with their things, playing with a pet. Others are nude, but, even when reclining on a bed, their faces reveal the artifice of the pose, as if the subject and viewer are together laughing at the silliness of the gesture.
In 1949, at 76 years old, Bellocq fell down some stairs and hit his head, only to die a few days later. His brother found the photo negatives in his apartment and sold them to a junk shop. Around 20 years later they were discovered by a fellow photographer who realized their value.
Bellocq was not the first photographer to document the world of prostitution so often kept hidden from public view. And he is certainly not the last. An exhibition titled "Scarlet Muse" at Daniel Cooney Fine Art will examine the work of 20 photographers from the 19th century to the present, tracing the storied and complex relationship between photography and prostitution.
The alliance between sex work and photography has been convoluted from the start, teetering back and forth between empowering and exploitative, empathetic and objectifying. The images in Cooney's exhibition aren't just revealing in their exposure of flesh, they lay bare the taboo subject matters so often kept of of sight, offering the beauty and the ugliness without apology.
The journey began with a daguerrotype dating back to the 1850s. The image, by August Braquehais, depicts a dark-haired young woman in a white gown and stockings, her legs spread to reveal a darkness between her limbs. She grazes her lips with her finger while gazing intently at the viewer. Whether she's attempting to seduce the photographer or warn him to remain silent, the gesture seems more illicit than the nudity.
As time went on, daguerrotypes gave way to black-and-white film, which later made room for color. The subjects shift as well, from old-school courtesans to mid-century transgender bohemians in Paris to the prostitutes on the forefront of San Francisco's gay liberation movement. Aside from just sharing the stories of their subjects, the images together form a larger narrative of sexual identity, liberation and transgression.
In the 1940s and beyond, Bob Mizer, a pioneer of homoerotic photography, snapped deliciously kitschy photographs of scantily clad hunks, subverting the tropes of pinup culture with a man as the object of desire. In the '90s, artist Philip-Lorca diCorcia embarked on a conceptual series titled "Hustlers," in which he picked up male prostitutes in Hollywood to take their picture, compensating them with their working rate.
One of the more recent photographers represented in the exhibition is Scot Sothern, who chronicled the sex workers walking the streets of Los Angeles in the 1970s and '80s. The black-and-white photos depict the sordid underbelly of LA nightlife, mixed with Sothern's genuine fascination, concern and, yes, sometimes arousal.
"I’d like to think I’ve made pictures that evoke empathy," Sothern said in an earlier interview with The Huffington Post. "Much of it is exploitation and I can’t claim I’ve made anyone’s life better by taking their picture, but, you know, I [want] people to see the wrongs they would otherwise turn their backs to. I think art is best used when it’s subversive and I’ve always had kind of a fuck-you attitude."
Sothern's comment illuminates a connection with Bellocq's work, in that the types of artists often drawn toward subject matter on the margins of society feel similarly outside of norms themselves. Although the subjects' bodies are in full view, the photographers' visions are equally laid bare. As Sothern said: "If I’m doing it right, every picture is a selfie. If you look at one of my pictures and you feel it in your gut then you are going to think about it as well, and you can’t do that without making some kind of judgement on the guy who snapped the shutter. I think I’m right there naked to the world in every shot."
Maybe you buy it, maybe you don't, but surely there's some invisible thread that has kept photographers enamored with the oldest profession for so many centuries. Whether pure fascination, an obsession with defiance, camaraderie, compassion, or corrupt curiosity, we may never be certain.
"Scarlet Muse" will run from June 9 to July 22, 2016 at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York.