Sun 29 Sep 2013
This is a story that meanders from Montmartre, the nightclub district in Paris, to Storyville, the historic red-light district of New Orleans, to San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin.
You may recall he broke his left leg when he was 12 and his right leg when he was 14. Neither healed correctly, resulting in his never growing beyond 4.5 feet tall.
Although he was mocked and bullied because of his stature, he was a sociable man, especially when drinking, and was well liked by his prostitute models.
The American photographer E.J. Bellocq (1873-1949) was a contemporary of Toulouse Lautrec, and by chance his growth too had been stunted.
He was a shy man, but the women considered him a likeable gentleman and quite willingly posed for him.
Prostitute, Storyville, New Orleans (right), c. 1912, by E.J. Bellocq
Only a few of Bellocq’s negatives survive. Long after his death, the photographer Lee Friedlander managed to buy and salvage them and finally made the Storyville photos public in a show and in book form in the 1970s.
A few years later, in August 1980, I had a couple of hours to kill in San Francisco on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I had just left brunch on Broadway with a friend, and as I drove away, I noticed a streetwalker making eye contact with a pedestrian. My camera was in the car, and I got a sudden inspiration: why not do a series on the streetwalkers of 1980 at work in San Francisco?
In the future, I reasoned, such a collection might have some of the historic interest of Toulouse Lautrec’s painted women in Paris or Bellocq’s prostitutes in Storyville. So I drove a few blocks and soon found myself in the Tenderloin — that rough neighborhood southwest of Union Square and north of Market Street.
Eddy is a one-way street, and there was a parking space on the left curb almost opposite the hotel entrance. I parked, turned off the motor, and put a telephoto lens on the camera. I looked at my watch; it was 3:05 p.m.
After adjusting my sideview mirror so I could see back up the sidewalk and my rearview mirror so I could see up the street behind me, I lit my pipe and put a coat over my camera. Then I sat back to watch.
Almost immediately, I spotted a very drunk couple sitting on a doorstep with their feet on the sidewalk. Although they were less than 20 feet away, they were oblivious of me. The woman’s face was puffy — apparently from drink and physical abuse. The man had numerous scars on his face. A front tooth was missing.
For awhile, the couple cooed and flirted with each other. Then they argued. Twice the man shoved his companion back against a wall, but they remained seated, and she didn’t appear to get hurt. Soon they were cooing again. Then arguing. Then more cooing. Occasionally, each would take a drink from a bottle, but mostly they just smoked cigarettes.
Suddenly, a wisp of smoke made me notice that one of the woman’s green tennis shoes was beginning to smolder from a cigarette burn. Soon she noticed too and slapped at the ember a couple of times while remaining seated.
The man, however, did not see the persistent little burn and kept up his alternately aggressive and affectionate ramblings. Within moments, the woman had forgotten about her still-smoldering shoe and resumed her part in the arguing and cooing. Periodically, she noticed the ever-growing column of smoke and took a few more slaps at her shoe — the man still not noticing and she still sitting down. Nor did he notice when she finally pulled the shoe off and set it on the sidewalk, where it continued to smolder.
Up Eddy Street came another woman, also about 30 and apparently a resident of the neighborhood. She was pushing a baby cart, but when she saw the smoking shoe, she stopped and stomped on it a couple of times. At this point, the man finally noticed the shoe was off and made a clumsy attempt to put it back on his companion’s foot, still not noticing the smoke.
This bizarre drama was interrupted, however, by the jolt of a 40ish black man bouncing off the back of my car and landing on his backside in the street. He was drunk, and so was his assailant who had just knocked him into a traffic lane, a white man in his late 20s with his shirt off. The white reminded me of photos I’d seen of weightlifters in prison — pale skin over huge muscles. For some reason, he was furious with the black.
Two car lengths behind me, a long, brown sedan pulled abruptly into a vacant parking space. While I watched in my rearview mirror, a black man in expensive cowboy garb, dark glasses, and a white hat jumped out of the car. The white man wheeled around, and the black cowboy quickly held up the palms of his hands to him.
Somehow, the new arrival managed to calm the angry white and then curtly ordered the terrified man in the street to get up and into the sedan. The black men did not appear to know each other. It was a brother helping a brother get away from trouble — and done with great diplomatic skill, given the fury of the white man.
A century ago, she could have been a model for a Henri de Toulouse Lautrec painting or an E.J. Bellocq portrait instead of a subject for a photojournalist on the street.
As my eye followed the sedan driving away, I saw the customer walk out of the hotel across the street. A moment or so behind him came the prostitute (above). For a few seconds, she stood in the doorway surveying the street as I clicked off a couple of photos. When she headed off up Eddy Street, I checked my watch; it was 3:20 pm. What a range of Tenderloin reality I’d seen in 15 minutes.