Erotic Photography

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Erotic Photography

Erotic photography consists of images produced with a photographic camera that inspire sexual feelings. The subjects of erotic photography include females, males, children, and groups of people. These subjects are often nude or seminude and they appeal both to heterosexuals (at first primarily men) and homosexuals. The history of erotic photography parallels the history of photography itself. Erotic photography has been a thriving industry, a target for censorship, the basis for advertising practices, and the foundation for the contemporary porn industry.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's (1789–1851) 1839 invention of the daguerreotype, a photographic process that used metal plates, enabled the practice of photographing nude models painters used as the basis for paintings. Daguerreotypes were much sharper, more detailed, and more permanent than any previous photographic process. Nude models were photographed in the multitude of conventional poses that constituted the vocabulary of the classical painting that still dominated artistic production of the time. Such academic posing was artificial and formal, offering gestures that often represented allegory and tropes from classical mythology. This nude photography, which was mainly practiced in Paris, was also used for anatomical studies, so that models' poses were also arranged to demonstrate particular portions of anatomies.

From the beginning these nude photographs were also purchased by wealthy collectors who were not practicing artists but who, instead, desired the photographs as erotic objects. Photographers who participated in nude photography were willing to participate in this lucrative sideline. Daguerreotypes were not, however, an ideal technology for the business of producing photographs for sale because they could only be reproduced by being rephotographed. British inventor William Fox Talbot (1800–1877) improved the possibility of mass reproduction by inventing the calotype process, which used negative images as the basis for the production of multiple copies. Parisian photographers of academic nudes quickly adopted this process and began the more full-fledged business of producing nude photographs, still ostensibly for artistic use but growing rapidly as a business in illicit erotica. The number of photographic studios increased from about thirteen to more than four hundred in Paris between the years 1841 and 1860. In 1853, the Société Photographique, for example, opened a studio that photographed, printed, and distributed nude photographs on a large scale, providing the model for pornographic photography that still exists in the early twenty-first century.

From 1840 until 1860 nude photographs circulated in Paris without much interference from the government. The alibi of artist's aide had been joined by several other ostensible purposes for nude photographs, such as ethnographic studies, which included photographs of nude natives of French colonies taken in context, or in lingerie advertisements. In ethnographic studies, nudity and display, which were often shy, were seen as qualities typical of less advanced cultures, and the pictures were sold as a kind of social study. Photographs of nude models posing for artists or modeling underwear were sold in what were essentially pornography stores linked to the producing studios, bookstores, and were exported to Britain and the United States in sets.

Many of the photographers who produced nude photographs circulated them under the name of the studios where they worked, though some photographers were renowned. Auguste Belloc (1800–1867), Bruno Braquehais (1823–1875), Felix Moulin (1802–1875), and the anonymous Monsieur X took pictures in Paris, whereas the German photographers Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856–1931) and his nephew Wilhelm von Plüschow (1852–1930) and the Italian Gaudenzio Marconi (1841–1885) specialized in homoerotic photography in Italy. Most photographs from 1841 until 1860 that still exist come from the preserved collections of connoisseurs of eroticism who collected photographs and postcards in the thousands.

The models who posed for the academic nude portraits were often professional artists' models and prostitutes. Those who posed for ethnographic portraits often were not generally thought of as respectable women. Males who posed for the more pictorial studies often made in Italy were also often young acquaintances of the photographers. By the end of the 1850s, nude photography began to break away from the academic model generally to become more openly erotic. Academic poses began to disappear in favor of more realistic, natural, and openly erotic poses. The bare background and pedestal of the academic studio shots was replaced by furniture, draperies, sculpture, and strategic draping, as well as with fetishistic articles of clothing such as shoes, stockings, and lingerie. Interest in male nudes had developed as a market in homoerotica with its own set of photographers.

At the same time governments began to prosecute the producers of pornography, driving the business underground. France instituted laws prohibiting the sale of nude photographs in 1850 and promulgated laws preventing their circulation in the mail during 1862. In 1874 England, where erotic photographs had been prominently displayed in shop windows, the infamous Henry Hayler was prosecuted after 130,248 erotic photos were found on his premises. In the United States Anthony Comstock (1844–1915) zealously cleansed any pocket of obscene material that he could show had gone through the mail. More severe censorship continued until the First World War (1914–1918), when standards were relaxed and nude postcards reappeared more publicly.

Continued innovation in photographic technology made it increasingly easier to duplicate copies of photographs, which had become more consciously artistic like paintings themselves instead of merely being background figure studies. Printed on paper cards, these photographs were circulated as postcards and calling cards. In these images both male and female models used overtly erotic codes of gesture, including slightly opened thighs, coy looks directly at the camera, the arranged veiling and revelation of body parts, and poses more calculated to stimulate various narratives or melodramas. Images of male or female youths together, for example, would catalyze a narrative of friendship and innocent sexual exploration. Images of women together suggested lesbian attachments. Models posed as pietas would evoke suffering. Sleeping models would permit a nonconspiratorial voyeurism, whereas models who viewed themselves in mirrors asked to be admired.

In some images models looked directly at the camera, presenting themselves and addressing the viewer. Images of nude groups, often arranged so as to repeat particular poses or gestures, conveyed a carefree erotic society. Single models imitated the poses of the sculpture with which they were photographed. Settings ranged from interiors to Arcadia. Contrasts in texture and context produced erotic stimulation as women were arranged in leather chairs or across automobile fenders. Male and female models, for example, were imaged next to animals or animal skins, a nude holding a kitten in a strategic spot producing erotic humor, and leopard skins evoking the exotic.

Erotic photographs also mixed races and ages, though nude photography tended to remain more single-sexed than mixed. Images of females might include both black and white females, females located in exotic contexts, or women dressed and made to look as if they were Middle Eastern. If males were included in pictures of nude females, they tended either to be clothed or function as support for various acrobatic dalliances. Males were imaged singly in presentation mode—displaying naked genitals or muscles—or in groups pursuing athletic activities. These images of nude males often reflected the beginning interest in physical culture, another rationale for nude photography that pretended superficially not to be erotic. Images of muscled men, of boys and men together in natural settings, and of men in various combat poses provided the first examples of beefcake.

Immediately before World War I, mores in Paris loosened enough that performers began to appear partially nude in Parisian nightclubs. Erotic photographers took advantage of the freer exhibits of performers such as Josephine Baker (1906–1975) and the increased freedom enjoyed by women after the war. Lingerie advertisements from Yva Richard (a married couple of photographers who also ran the lingerie company) depended on the suggestive nudity of their poses, whereas photographers such as the French photographer Germaine Krull (1897–1985) and the English Albert Wyndham (lifespan unknown) produced erotic photographs of women arrayed with such fetish objects as stockings, shoes, animals, and cars flagellating one another or in scenarios suggesting domination. Bookshop photographic publishers survived earlier censorship and competed with one another in Paris, multiplying the artistic journals, ethnographic magazines, and other means of publishing collections of nude photographs.

Improvements in camera technology, such as the invention of more portable equipment with more flexible formats, enabled the production of erotic photographs in urban contexts. Hungarian art photographer Brassaï, originally known as Gyula Halasz (1899–1984), produced photographs of prostitutes and nightclub performers, turning the pleasures of illicit photography into the subject matter for photography practiced as a more painterly art. Another Hungarian, André Kertész (1894–1985) turned candid photographs of Parisian street life into photojournalism. In the United States photographer E. J. Bellocq (1873–1949) used the newer portable cameras in New Orleans around 1912, taking candid photos of prostitutes on the street in Storyville. The German Julian Mandel (lifespan unknown) produced numerous photos of nude women in natural settings.

By the 1930s the cinema had begun to display the spectacle of stage nudity, but it generated another, more culturally accepted, site for erotic photography in the glamour and fashion magazines of Paris, London, and New York. Whereas Francois Bertin (lifespan unknown), Biederer (neither his first name nor his lifespan are known), Mr. Grundworth (identity unknown), and Yva Richard continued to produce magazines full of nude photographs, mainstream fashion magazines, such as Vogue, began to adopt some of the erotic tropes developed through nearly a century of nude photography, such as the coy look at the camera, the arrangement of models with fetish objects such as automobiles and animals, and the continued trope of mirror reflections. Many photographers made their reputations as portraitists by working for glamour magazines, including the British Cecil Beaton (1904–1980) and George Platt Lynes (1907–1955) who worked for British Vogue, the German Horst P. Horst (1906–1999), and the Russian George Hoyningen-Huene (1900–1968) who shot for Paris Vogue.

Glamour photography focused on the seductions of beautiful unapproachable figures. Although nude photographic models were often posed looking directly into the camera, glamour models looked dreamily at a faraway point. Often framed more closely than was the practice in conventional nude photography (which featured the full body), glamour photography mastered portraits of the head and shoulders. Fashion photography continued to image the whole body in order to sell clothes. The two modes joined in the pin-up picture, usually a full bodied, seductively posed, scantily clad glamour girl such as Betty Grable (1916–1973) or Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962) whose pictures were pinned up by soldiers in barracks.

World War II (1939–1945) shut down most of the photography bookstores in Paris, but new centers of erotica opened after the war. The pin-up pictures of the war transformed into the centerfolds of a new genre of men's magazine. In the United States Hugh Hefner (b. 1926) began Playboy in 1953 with Marilyn Monroe as the centerfold. Playboy followed photographic magazines aimed at gay male consumers, such as Physique Pictorial, which began in 1951 as a way to market male models. The men's magazine, whether gay or straight, still followed the conventions of nude photography deployed since its beginnings in the 1840s, although the nudes in men's magazines were actually not as graphically portrayed as the nineteenth-century female nudes in France, because both genitals and pubic hair, which had featured prominently in the earlier pictures, did not appear in men's magazines until the 1965 publication of Penthouse. In Europe Scandinavian photographers recommenced the erotic photography business in the late 1960s, although the line between erotic photography and art photography became even more indistinct as attitudes about nudity and obscenity became more open.

More contemporary erotic photography is divided between the erotic photography of men's (and a few women's) magazines and the practice of portrait photography by American art photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989), Annie Leibovitz (b. 1949), Joel-Peter Witkin (b. 1939), and Herb Ritts (1952–2002), and the French Gilles Berquet (b. 1956) and Czechoslovakian Jan Saudek (b. 1935). Mapplethorpe, who came into the public eye primarily because of the furor produced by conservatives who objected to his explicitly gay work being funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, specialized in portrait photography that was erotically suggestive. His photographs of nude African and African-American men were studies in light, texture, and contrast in addition to the homoerotic presentation of their subjects.


Dupouy, Alexandre. 2004. Erotic Art Photography. New York: Parkstone Press.

Koetzle, Michael. 2005. 1000 Nudes: A History of Erotic Photography from 1839–1939. New York: Taschen.

Mapplethorpe, Robert. 1992. Mapplethorpe. New York: Random House.

Waugh, Thomas. 1996. Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press.

                                              Judith Roof