Arkansas Times Recommends is a weekly series in which Times staff members (or whoever happens to be around at the time) highlight things we’ve been enjoying this week.
My recommendation this week is for the Storyville portraits of Ernest J. Bellocq. Bellocq was the son of a wealthy creole family in New Orleans. Hydrocephalic, with an oddly-shaped head and an awkward gait, he was something of a loner in his day. He apparently worked as a commercial and industrial photographer, taking photos of ships, engines, machinery, etc. In his spare time, however, Bellocq took portraits; specifically, portraits of the prostitutes who lived and worked in the vast red light district known as Storyville. Storyville is a fascinating tale all its own: a kind of reservation of sin just over Basin Street at the rear of the French Quarter, the area was set aside by the city fathers after prostitution, saloons and vice threatened to take over the city. There, prostitutes served everyone from the landed gentry to the lowest of dockhands. A row of ornate Victorian houses on Basin catered to the high class, with rents and cost for a sex-worker’s time shelving away the further back in the district you went. Storyville was shut down in 1917, and later almost entirely demolished.
Bellocq died, forgotten, in Sept. 1949, reportedly prone to dozing off on the bench in front of a Canal Street camera store toward the end. In 1958, eighty-odd glass plate negatives, the totality of Bellocq’s Storyville portraits that survive, turned up in an old trunk in a New Orleans junk shop. Purchased from the owner in 1967 by the photographer Lee Friedlander, the negatives turned out to be the final legacy of a masterful photographer who made magic with his camera.
Though there were plenty of folks in Storyville taking pornographic snaps to sell to the tourists in the years leading up to World War I, Bellocq was no pornographer. Even though some of the women he photographed are naked as the day they were born. just as many of his photos feature subjects in more mundane poses or not posed at all: women playing cards, women drinking, women showing off their pet dogs. Bellocq doesn’t seem to be trying to use them to titillate himself or the audience. Instead, he seems much more interested in capturing their humanity, their joys and sadness.
It’s haunting stuff, made even more so by the odd and mysterious quirks of Bellocq’s art: the pendant that appears around the neck of several of his subjects; the background rooms showing the trinkets and keepsakes collected by the women themselves; the fact that in several of the negatives, the faces of the women have been completely obliterated by an angry thicket of scratches to the fragile emulsion (rumor has it that it might have been Bellocq’s brother, a Jesuit priest, who defaced the photos… but if so, why did he leave the image of their naked bodies intact and only wipe out their faces?) Some women wear masks. Some smile. Some frown. One stands with her eyes closed, holding a bouquet of flowers.
It’s gorgeous stuff, visual poetry, by one of the great, mostly-unsung photographers. You can see the bulk of Bellocq’s surviving photos at the website of the Museum of Modern Art. — David Koon
Staying with the New Orleans theme David started (and with this week’s cover story about the 10th anniversary of Katrina), I recommend the NOLA rapper Kilo G, who was the first artist signed to the city’s wildly successful talent incubator Cash Money Records. He was 15 at the time. I came across his 1995 record “Bloody City” while researching an essay about Pimp C (featured in the track above), and was surprised by how well it held up. It was his second album and his last. Two years after its release, reportedly, Kilo was shot and killed outside of his house in the 7th Ward. — Will Stephenson
I hear that we’re doing a New Orleans-themed thing, so I’ll recommend something I hadn’t thought about in years, until I interviewed the wonderful Barbara Scorza last month for this week’s cover story: Manchu’s fried chicken and fried rice. Manchu’s, a corner store at the intersection of Claiborne and Esplanade, makes almost nothing other than those two items, as far as I know. If every kitchen focused for decades on perfecting just two things, we’d have a better world. That’s almost certainly not true, but I can guarantee it will seem like it is as long as you’re eating that plate of chicken. — Benji Hardy
If it is hot outside and you are in New Orleans, you must go to Hansen’s Sno Bliz. Ernest Hansen invented an ice-shaving machine in 1939. Okay, you have probably had sno-cones, or sno-balls as they are called in New Orleans. But the particular way that Hansen’s shaves the ice — it is sui generis. What I can say is that it is like eating snow. Like real snow. Like it’s really hot outside and then suddenly delicious snow comes down from Heaven and you get to eat it. They make all these homemade syrups. Ernest’s wife, Mary, was just a wizard at flavored syrups. Fresh and inventive. Subtle, rich, not too sweet. So this magic stuff that feels like real snow tastes like real fruit. And all this was decades before artisanal this, boutique that. The Hansens were pioneers, artists, magicians. They were American geniuses. A few weeks after they evacuated for the hurricane in 2005, Mary died at 95. Ernest died about six months later, at 94. Now their granddaughter, Ashley, runs the shop. She is so nice that my wife and I used to sheepishly ask we if we could be friends with her when we would get sno-balls. Incidentally, her dad, Gerard Hansen, was a magistrate judge for almost 40 years before recently retiring. He was a decent guy who gave more reasonable bail amounts to defendants than his contemporaries. Gerard grew up serving up sno-balls for his parents, which no doubt helped his future in electoral politics. The bail system in this country — with unreasonably high bail amounts and a reliance on bail bondsmen — remains a cruel and un-American system that pushes poor people to plead in cases they shouldn’t and has contributed to a dynamic in New Orleans that looks a bit like debtor’s prison. And it outsources a key component of our justice system to private companies dominated by near-criminal elements (only the U.S. and the Philippines depend on bail bondsmen and allow legal bounty hunting). It is an ongoing scandal, a moral rot that most Americans of means never think about. But that’s not Gerard Hansen’s fault. Really, he was, overall, one of the good ones. New Orleans is beautiful and New Orleans has problems. It’s bittersweet. — David Ramsey
While my family and I scrambled to find ways to get information about any of the priceless items stolen from our house recently, I was reminded by a friend to use IFTTT (If This Then That) to help keep me informed of items like mine being posted on sites like Ebay and Craigslist. So I did, and it has been a life saver. While it has not brought any of our belongings back into the light, it has saved me hours and hours and hours of searching the internet for my things. I recommend checking out IFTTT and see what it can do for you. It can be pretty darn helpful. — Bryan Moats