History of erotic photography  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

(Redirected from Erotic photography)
Jump to: navigation, search

"However suggestively disposed, however inventively exposed, propriety was satisfied so long as pornography was made palatable by the convenient remoteness of the antique, of history or some other exotic setting." --Art and Photography, Aaron Scharf on pretexts for prurience

"A little later a thousand hungry eyes were bending over the peepholes of the stereoscope, as though they were the attic-windows of the infinite. The love of pornography, which is no less deep-rooted in the natural heart of man than the love of himself, was not to let slip so fine an opportunity of self-satisfaction. And do not imagine that it was only children on their way back from school who took pleasure in these follies; the world was infatuated with them." --The Modern Public and Photography, Baudelaire, tr. Jonathan Mayne

Related e



Erotic photography is a style of art photography of an erotic and even a sexually suggestive or sexually provocative nature. Though the subjects of erotic photography are usually completely or mostly unclothed, that is not a requirement. Erotic photography dating from 1835 until the 1960's is often referred to in the years since as vintage photography. The realism of nude photography makes it much more offensive than nude painting or nude prints, with the possible exception of L'origine du monde by Gustave Courbet. The archetypical pornographic photo is perhaps this image[1] of one woman and two men.



Before 1839, depictions of nudity and erotica generally consisted of paintings, drawings and engravings. In that year, Louis Daguerre presented the first practical process of photography to the French Academy of Sciences. Unlike earlier photograph methods, his daguerreotypes had stunning quality and did not fade with time. Artists adopted the new technology as a new way to depict the nude form, which in practice was the feminine form. In so doing, at least initially, they tried to follow the styles and traditions of the art form.

During the 19th century and early 20th, the only officially sanctioned photography of the body was for the production of artist's studies, euphemistically called académies or études d'après nature

Traditionally, in France, an académie was a nude study done by a painter to master the female (or male) form. Each had to be registered with the French government and approved or they could not be sold. Soon, nude photographs were being registered as académie and marketed as aids to painters.

However, the realism of a photograph as opposed to the idealism of a painting made many of these intrinsically erotic.

The daguerreotypes were not without drawbacks, however. The main difficulty was that they could only be reproduced by photographing the original picture since each image was an original and the all-metal process does not use negatives. In addition, the earliest daguerreotypes had exposure times ranging from three to fifteen minutes, making them somewhat impractical for portraiture. Unlike earlier drawings, action could not be shown. The poses that the models struck had to be held very still for a long time. Because of this, the standard pornographic image shifted from one of two or more people engaged in sex acts to a solitary woman exposing her genitals. The cost of the process also limited the spread of the technology. Since one picture could cost a week's salary, the audience for nudes mostly consisted of artists and the upper echelon of society. It was cheaper to hire a prostitute and experience the sex acts than it was to own a picture of them in the 1840s. Stereoscopy was invented in 1838 and became extremely popular for daguerreotypes, including the erotic images. This technology produced a type of three dimensional view that suited erotic images quite well. Although thousands of erotic daguerreotypes were created, only around 800 are known to survive; however, their uniqueness and expense meant that they were once the toys of rich men. Due to their rarity, the works can sell for more than ₤GB 10,000.

By 1840 artists had launched an era of erotic photography. One of the most arresting prints is attributed to Félix-Jacques Moulin, taken into custody around 1850/51 for producing indecent images. The image is most probably Nu allongé sur jeté de dentelle, and it depicts a "nude woman casting a fetching look over her arm"[2].

In 1841, William Fox Talbot patented the calotype process, the first negative-positive process, making possible multiple copies. This invention permitted an almost limitless number of prints to be produced from a glass negative. Also, the reduction in exposure time made a true mass market for pornographic pictures possible. The technology was immediately employed to reproduce nude portraits. Paris soon became the centre of this trade. In 1848 only thirteen photography studios existed in Paris; by 1860, there were over 400. Most of them profited by selling illicit pornography to the masses who could now afford it. The pictures were also sold near train stations, by traveling salesmen and women in the streets who hid them under their dresses. They were often produced in sets (of four, eight or twelve), and exported internationally, mainly to England and the United States. Both the models and the photographers were commonly from the working class, and the artistic model excuse was increasingly hard to use. By 1855, no more photographic nudes were being registered as académie, and the business had gone underground to escape prosecution.

The Victorian pornographic tradition in Britain had three main elements: French photographs, erotic prints (sold in shops in Holywell Street, a long vanished London thoroughfare, swept away by the Aldwych), and printed literature. The ability to reproduce photographs in bulk assisted the rise of a new business individual, the porn dealer. Many of these dealers took advantage of the postal system to send out photographic cards in plain wrappings to their subscribers. Therefore, the development of a reliable international postal system facilitated the beginnings of the pornography trade. Victorian pornography had several defining characteristics. It reflected a very mechanistic view of the human anatomy and its functions. Science, the new obsession, was used to ostensibly study the human body. Consequently, the sexuality of the subject is often depersonalised, and is without any passion or tenderness. At this time, it also became popular to depict nude photographs of women of exotic ethnicities, under the umbrella of science. Studies of this type can be found in the work of Eadweard Muybridge. Although he photographed both men and women, the women were often given props like market baskets and fishing poles, making the images of women thinly disguised erotica. Parallel to the British printing history, photographers and printers in France frequently turned to the medium of postcards, producing great numbers of them. Such cards came to be known in the US as "French postcards".

Painting and photography

Painting and photography

According to Helmut Gernsheim, Parisian photographer Nadar's photograph[3] of actress Marie-Christine Roux unmistakably reappears in Ingres's La Source[4]. Helmut Gernsheim said that Ingres had sent Roux to Nadar for preliminary studies for La source, the same year the painting was completed.

Académies and études d'après nature

Académies and études d'après nature

As Helmut Gernsheim notes in Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960, "the production of generic photographic nude studies, intended of art students as well as the public at large, were euphemistically called académies. They were substantially cheaper than working with a real model. Noël Paymal Lerebours supplied the first 'académies' as early as summer 1840."

The Two Ways of Life, towards an exception of the photographic "art nude"

The Two Ways of Life (1857) Oscar Gustave Rejlander is a milestone in the history of erotic photography. Referring to the photograph in 1863, Thomas Sutton noted that "There is no impropriety in exhibiting works of art such as Etty’s Bathers usurped by a swan[5], but there is impropriety in publicly exhibiting photographs of nude prostitutes in flesh and blood truthfulness and minuteness of detail."


French erotic postcards

erotic postcard, French postcards

The French pioneered erotic photography, producing nude postcards that became the subject of an officer's letter to President Abraham Lincoln after they were found in the possession of U.S. troops, according to An Underground Education by Richard Zacks. A Brief History of Postcards explains, "A majority of the French nude postcards were called postcards because of the size. They were never meant to be postally sent. It was illegal".

Instead, nudes were marketed in a monthly magazine called "La Beauté" that targeted artists looking for poses. Each issue contained 75 nude images which could be ordered by mail, in the form of postcards, hand-tinted or sepia toned. Street dealers, tobacco shops, and a variety of other vendors bought the photographs for resale to American tourists.

20th century

Early 20th century


The early 1900s saw several important improvements in camera design, including the 1913 invention of the 35 mm or "candid" camera by Oskar Barnack of the Ernst Leitz company. The Ur-Leica was a compact camera based on the idea of reducing the format of negatives and enlarging them later, after they had been exposed. This small, portable device made nude photography in secluded parks and other semi-public places easier, and represented a great advance for amateur erotica. Artists were enamored with their new ability to take impromptu photos without carrying around a clunky apparatus.

Early 20th century artist E. J. Bellocq, who made his best known images with the older style glass plate negatives, is best remembered for his down-to-earth pictures of prostitutes in domestic settings in the Storyville red light district of New Orleans. In contrast to the usual pictures of women awkwardly posed amid drapery, veils, flowers, fruit, classical columns and oriental braziers, Bellocq's sitters appear relaxed and comfortable. David Steinberg speculates that the prostitutes may have felt at ease with Bellocq because he was "so much of a fellow outcast."

Julian Mandel became known in the 1920s and 1930s for his exceptional photographs of the female form. Participating in the German "new age outdoor movement," Mandel took numerous pictures in natural settings, publishing them through the Paris-based studios of A. Noyer and PC Paris. A Johns Hopkins University scholarship was named in his honor.

Another noteworthy nude photographer of the first two decades of the 20th century was Arundel Holmes Nicholls. His work, featured in the archives of the Kinsey Institute, is artistically composed, often giving an iridescent glow to his figures. Following in Mandel's footsteps, Nicholls favored outdoor shots.

Many photographs from this era are damaged; Bellocq, for instance, frequently scratched out the faces of his sitters to obscure their identities. Some of his other sitters were photographed wearing masks. Peter Marshall writes, "Even in the relatively bohemian atmosphere of Carmel, California in the 1920s and 30s, Edward Weston had to photograph many of his models without showing their faces, and some 75 years on, many communities are less open about such things than Carmel was then."

Photographers around the middle of the century of note are Walter Bird, John Everard, Horace Roye, Harrison Marks and Zoltán Glass. Roye's photograph Tomorrow's Crucifixion, depicting a model wearing a gas mask while on a crucifix caused much controversy when published in the English Press in 1938. The image is now considered one of the major pre-war photographs of the 20th century.

Between the wars

modernist nude

Post war

The invention of the Polaroid camera enabled anyone to take their own amateur sex photographs without having to set up their own darkroom. The photographs from one of the first Polaroid cameras available in Britain featured in the divorce case involving the Duchess of Argyll

see also

Late 20th century

Alva Bernadine, Gilles Berquet, Guy Bourdin, Steve Diet Goedde, Nan Goldin, David Hamilton, Irina Ionesco, Richard Kern, Eric Kroll, David LaChapelle, Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Steven Meisel, Helmut Newton,Bettina Rheims, Paolo Roversi, Thomas Ruff, Jan Saudek, Jeanloup Sieff, Romain Slocombe, Roy Stuart, Jock Sturges, Ellen Von Unwerth, Trevor Watson


See also

Further reading

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "History of erotic photography" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools