japonisme: courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part I Whores

26 January 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part I Whores

MARCH 1911

It trou- bles me to think that I am suited
for this work — spectacle and fetish —
a pale odalisque. But then I recall
my earliest training — childhood — how
my mother taught me to curtsy and be still
so that I might please a white man, my father.
For him I learned to shape my gestures,
practiced expressions on my pliant face.

Later, I took arsenic — tablets I swallowed
to keep me fair, bleached white as stone.
Whiter still, I am a reversed silhouette
against the black backdrop where I pose, now,
for photographs, a man named Bellocq.
He visits often, buys time only to look
through his lens. It seems I can sit for hours,
suffer the distant eye he trains on me,

lose myself in reverie where I think most
of you: how I was a doll in your hands
as you brushed and plaited my hair, marveling
that the comb — your fingers — could slip through
as if sifting fine white flour. I could lose myself
then, too, my face — each gesture — shifting
to mirror yours as when I'd sit before you, scrubbed
and bright with schooling, my eyebrows raised,

punc- tuating each new thing you taught. There,
at school, I could escape my other life of work:
laundry, flat irons and damp sheets, the bloom
of steam before my face; or picking time,
hunchbacked in the field — a sea of cotton,
white as oblivion — where I would sink
and disappear. Now I face the camera, wait
for the photograph to show me who I am.

from Bellocq's Ophelia, Copyright 2002 by Natasha Trethewey. All rights reserved.

whores are the lowest on the ladder of status, perhaps in all of society, but certainly in the world of companionship for money. in the early 1900s, prostitution in new orleans was limited to a neighborhood nicknamed 'storyville' after mr. story, who passed that law.

e. j. bellocq, as fictionalized in louis malle's 'pretty baby,' took photographs of women who worked there. sixty years later, mayumi oda paid them tribute in woodblocks, and another thirty years after that natasha trethewey did so in verse.

each saw beyond the frame, beyond the neighborhood, to young women who had made very difficult choices. none glamorized nor condemned. it is interesting to me that we in this country have only photographs, from that time, and not the fine arts that we have from japan, and france.

it's by no means meaningless that the US was founded by puritans. this is not to say that the real lives of the women in japan and france were all that wonderful, but the art was glorious. more next post.

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Blogger Roxana Ghita said...

oh I didn't know any of this, it is so fascinating. to see those photographs, the woodblocks, the women long disappeared and yet so full of life, even more so through those words - it is overwhelming. I have to read this novel. please do continue to post on this topic.

26 January, 2008 15:39  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh yes--well i'm really happy that you are finding this as interesting as i am. i'm learning as i go, too. it's interesting how a post comes together: it started when i was researching that post on grun/montmartre. there's so much about art nouveau paris that was different from what i had thought.

so then i went looking for an american equivilent to the art that is so easily found from japan and france. and there isn't any. at least not that i could find.

the only think that kept coming up were the storyville portraits. oh--i just thought of something. see, these photos had never been printed until the 1970s when a modern photographer found out about the plates, printed them up, and exhibited them at the museum of modern art in new york. then they toured the country. i myself say them here in berkeley.

now i knew about mayumi's series just from knowing mayumi, but i had never thought of seeing if i could connect them with the original photos. the thing i just thought of was that mayumi did these in the 1970s. it's interesting (a word i overuse) to know some context, isn't it?

anyway, i also just found out about the poem while i was trying to dig up the bellocq photos.

26 January, 2008 16:29  
Anonymous liza cowan said...

Lotus, this is wonderful. I'd seen the Storyville photos, of course, but I'd never heard of Mayumi Oda. I love the work she shows on her website. I wish she'd written something about her images, though. The context makes them that much more compelling.

It's also interesting that Bellocq's glass plates were discovered and made famous by photographer Lee Friedlander (one of my personal favorites) and written about elequently by Susan Sontag. I found great posts about the photos on Mastersofphotography.com and phototnet.com.uk.

Thanks so much for bringing these two artists together.

27 January, 2008 06:59  
Blogger Michael said...

I heard recently in a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the origin of the House Of The Rising Sun (As celebrated in the hit song by Eric Burdon and The Animals in the 60's) that excavations had taken place of a brothel of the same name in New Orleans. In the bottom layers of the dig, they found hundreds of little jars that once contained rouge, back in the 1890's.
The Listen Again link has expired but it was here:

27 January, 2008 08:17  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

well as you can see, we really are in sync, michael! i spent all night last night trying to find truth and only found arguments. it just fascinates me, though, how all this just fits together. thanks for the link. i guess i used a different one because it's working. on the next post....

27 January, 2008 16:32  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

interesting i didn't come across any of the sontag--thanks for the suggestions of where to look. and i'm delighted you're interested.

i too wanted to read mayumi comments on her series. i looked everywhere to see if i could find it elsewhere but couldn't.

i published one from that series back in 1981 in the first issue of my magazine! she's written a bunch of books. her one 'goddesses' i'm sure has commentary at least on the images in it.

27 January, 2008 17:00  

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