Which came first, the naked or the nude? That's easy -- we come into the world naked, and only certain artfully disrobed persons can ever really be considered nude. Yet confusion persists on this ticklish topic. For instance, most nudists are not really nude but naked, yet the coquettishly deposed damsel in Goya's famous painting, The Naked Maja, is really nude. Why? Because she looks natural, like she's supposed to be that way.
It takes a special knack to look natural wearing nothing, as these photographs by E.J. Bellocq and Greg Friedler at John Stinson Fine Arts attest. Of course, the women of this city's Storyville red light district had lots of practice, and Bellocq presented them artfully, but in this case it is not so much the women as the photos themselves that seem somehow exposed, perhaps because they often resemble proofs rather than exhibition prints. They are important because they were made from previously unknown negatives, some no longer extant, that are often similar to, yet different from, the known classics of Bellocq's oeuvre.
Storyville Prostitute Standing by a Bentwood Bed in an Eccentrically Appointed Bedroom may look familiar to Bellocq fans, but has never before been published. Offering an unusual view into the inner sanctum of a successful hooker's boudoir, it features a variety of opulent accessories surrounding a woman who appears pensively preoccupied, as if trying to remember where she left her laudanum. And it is striking how Bellocq was able to distill the essence of a special time and place, a domain that was public yet remained somewhat secret. Here the negative seems to have been deteriorating when the print was made (possibly around 1950, according to Stinson), as was also the case in the Museum of Modern Art's Storyville Portraits exhibition, where the advanced deterioration added to an overall sense of vulnerability despite the pristine quality of the prints. Here, distressed and somewhat frayed quality seen in some of the prints contributes to an aura of nakedness in spite of their carefully posed subjects. Whatever, the appearance of any previously unknown Storyville portraits is a welcome event. These images, from the collection of Brooklyn photo aficionado Abraham Stransky, were obtained in the French Quarter shortly after Bellocq's death in 1948.
Similar in some ways but very different in tone are Greg Friedler's photos of naked folk in New York, London and Los Angeles. Friedler, like Bellocq, is a native Orleanian, but where Bellocq pursued the artful nude, Friedler pursues pure nakedness, in side-by-side images of subjects posed clothed and disrobed. The results appear in three books set in London, Los Angeles and New York, the latter offering proof that no one looks less natural than a naked New Yorker, with a few notable exceptions.
Criminal Defense Attorney, a 28-year-old Asian lady, evokes those tawny island women in Gaugin's paintings, and a 22-year-old Librarian actually looks more natural in the buff, oddly enough. But a 30-year-old Printer, with mutton-chop whiskers, a body covered with tattoos and a gratuitous belt strangulating his midriff like a noose, is freaky. Similarly, a paunchy 55-year-old Telemarketer and a 46-year-old Transsexual Karate Instructor are like modern-day Hieronymous Bosch or Diane Arbus characters. The Los Angeles figures are no less weird, yet seem more at ease with their bodies (practice again). But the Londoners, for instance a 30-year-old female Research Scientist (with her leg in a brace), and a 24-year-old male Photo Librarian, actually look a lot like regular folks who just happen to be naked.
If Friedler was looking for the unvarnished truth behind the garments, what he got was a census sampling of the folks who were willing to strip for the camera, which in America, at least, is a special category indeed. Also on view are some big color prints from his Mattress series of bare young ladies on a mattress that is also included in the show. Skirting the boundaries between the naked and the nude, these images possess the graphic insouciance of soft porn melded with an artful use of light and composition that makes them almost like modern equivalents to Bellocq's boudoir photos of a century ago. Having returned to his hometown, Friedler is currently working on a new project, Naked New Orleans, which promises further revelations from behind the veil.
- Penny for your thoughts; the pensive nature of Storyville Prostitute Standing by a Bentwood Bed in an Eccentrically Appointed Bedroom is but one facet of legendary photographer E.J. Bellocq's amazing Storyville photographs.