[Courtesy Arts District New Orleans]

A Preservation of Light: Meet the Women of Storyville

15:00 September 26, 2022
By: Gracie Wise

Besides having a reputation for being the party animal of the U.S., New Orleans used to be famous for its red-light district. The district was home to strip clubs, dance halls, brothels, and other businesses in the sex industry. In fact, there was not one single law against prostitution in that district. And that district was called Storyville.

Spillman | Blackwell Gallery is proud to present Dana Nehdaran's A Preservation of Light, a masterpiece that tells the story of the women living in Storyville. Guests are invited to come to the gallery on opening night on Saturday, October 1 from 6-9 p.m. to see the exhibition while enjoying light bites, jazz music, and some Sazerac. Guests can also participate in Art for Art's Sake and the First Saturday gallery openings in the Arts District.

Leslie-Claire Spillman, who is the gallery co-owner and director, is excited to present these historic works of art. She said that looking at these portraits were an emotional experience for her.

"The paintings seem to breathe. The eyes of the women, often meeting the gaze of the viewer directly, have a spark of life," Spillman said. "The large scale of the paintings adds to their ability to pull you in and make it hard to look away. They have a presence that is palpable, and the deep connection that the artist feels with the subjects, and his desire to reveal their humanity through the work is obvious."

Born and raised in Iran, Nehdaran was mesmerized by his family's appreciation for the arts. His parents traveled to view collections at galleries, and his grandparents collected paintings and antiques. He would take a love for painting, a skill that his mother encouraged. She enrolled him into private lessons with Hassanpour, a well-known artist in Iran whose lessons led him to enroll at the Soureh Art University in Shiraz.

In 2007, Nehdaran joined the Iranian Painter Association where he would make paintings based on old photographs showcasing Iranian culture. His most recent piece was Esther's Children, which was showcased in Los Angeles, Tehran, and Dubai. Each of his paintings indicates the battle between the then and now of Iranian society.

One day, Nehdaran was inspired by photographs of prostitutes from Storyville taken by the famous commercial photographer E.J. Bellocq. Although his identity remains a mystery, 89 of them which were found on his desk in the form of glass plate negatives. Taken in 1912, the portraits were probably used for the "Blue Book," which kept the directories of female prostitutes and prostitution services. His brother, Leo, took them to an antique shop for preservation.

Lee Friedlander, a famous photographer, would purchase the photos in 1966 which were reproduced as prints. Although the portraits were damaged from Hurricane Betsy, they still captured the hearts of anyone who viewed them.

While visiting New Orleans, Nehdaran visited A Gallery for Fine Photography when he spotted the portraits of the women from Storyville and was immediately captivated by the women who told him a story.

"I hoped to envision their spirit, recognize their lives' limited choices, and imagine the stories behind each and every one of them," Nehdaran said.

When COVID-19 forced Nehdaran to stay at his New York home for months, he remembered details from his New Orleans trip, including the Storyville women at the art gallery. He tried to imagine the story behind them. Then, he took out his brush and some canvas and began painting.

"These paintings represent my vision of a love poem both to Bellocq and to each of the women whose life he touched and momentarily captured forever," Nehdaran said.

A Preservation of Light will be open through Wednesday, November 23. For more information, visit www.spillmanblackwellart.com.

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