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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Plate 17 from E. J. Bellocq, Storyville Portraits

1 Bellocq Plate 17

The spirals stand for intoxication: the shot glass in her right hand, obscured by motion blur, and the bottle of Raleigh Rye on the table that supports her left elbow. The shape is everywhere: in the lathed table legs, the drapery of an erect statue of a dancing woman at the table’s centre, and (more subtly) in the twist of her striped stocking as it passes over her knee. Her legs are crossed. The left is on top, and—like the shot glass—it’s marred by a barely perceptible blur, as if she’s tapping her foot to a tune in her head.

The diaphanous garment draped over her upper half is neither a dress nor a blouse. I can’t even tell where it ends. Her hair’s pinned up, but not rigorously. Her expression’s neutral, but relaxed.

The chair is a bit more than functional, because there are elaborate turnings on the leg shapes, and a triple stretcher between the legs. The table is even fancier. A piece of white lace displays a tableau of objects. An alarm clock—very useful in a brothel. Then there’s the imposing statue, the bottle (its position coinciding exactly with the plane of focus), an apple, and an identified object at the right. Underneath the table, on a shelf suspended between its legs, are a series of miniature wooden chairs. Each has two feathers attached to its rear of the stile at the top, one on each side. These miniature chairs look like trinkets, the sort of thing one purchases from a child street vendor.

There’s a large, floor-length window on the right with the blind drawn up. Just possibly, it’s a door, not a window. That’s the light source for the photograph. No flash: indirect, barely touching, but definitive nonetheless.

There’s a wall behind her, parallel to the plane of focus. On the wall are six pictures—a seventh may be arranged as a sort of pendant to one of the six. Since the wall is out-of-focus, the subjects are unidentifiable, but at least two are cameo portraits of women. The others might be erotic, but they’re not pornographic: the same could be said of this photograph.

Bellocq normally composes with the subject dead centre, but here she’s displaced to the photographer’s left, or rather the subject is not the woman in and of herself, but the unity of woman, chair and table, the last two indispensable supports to her (literally) shaky sense of self.

It’s possible that Bellocq has caught her off-guard, in mid-blink. But that’s accidental. An honest mistake, between friends.

2 comments:

Nigel said...

A great photograph. Yes, I think she's been caught off-guard as well, though she might also be a little on the pissed side into the bargain? This image does reveal that lovely alcoholic melancholia...

Jonathan Walker said...

The shallow depth-of-field accentuates the effect. If you see a print, it's apparent that everything on the back wall is out-of-focus.