In the 19th centuries the classical arts were very much admired; sculptures and paintings showing the naked body were the major part of art gallery and museum exhibitions. However the Victorians were very strict on morality, and in the family home a portrait of the Queen, a framed religious tract or a landscape print would be the normal pictures to grace their sitting room. No nudes here!
Soon after the invention of the photographic process by Daguerre in the 1830’s the first nude photographs were created. These early photographs were intended to provide good reference material for painters and sculptors. Many of the early nude photographs were posed in the manner of classic oil paintings to make them more acceptable to critics of this art form.
This new technology of photography was quickly taken up by artists eager for new ways to illustrate the undraped feminine form – and to make a lot of money! In the moral climate of the 19th century the only officially sanctioned photography of the body was for the production of artist’s studies. However many were produced as erotic images for the ‘discerning gentleman.’
The reality of the photographic image was considered quite ugly at this time, so the closer the photographer could make the photograph resemble a classical painting the less likely he was to be accused of creating something obscene. The model who was willing to pose unclothed was considered immoral, and ‘respectable’ women rarely posed in the nude during the early days of photography.
The technical process in the early years required extremely long exposures, so the nude model often had to stay extremely still for up to ten minutes while the shutter remained open. The pose of the model was often contrived. Theatrical settings were used – the chaise-longue covered in heavy brocade, floral drapes, large classical urns and other paraphernalia were used to set the scene.
One picture could cost a week’s salary, so the audience for nudes mostly consisted of artists and the upper echelon of society. The French pioneered erotic photography, producing nude postcards, so named because of their size, although they were never meant to be postally sent as this was illegal. Nude photographs were marketed in a monthly magazine called the “La Beaute” 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 and servicemen.
The emergence of the glamorous pin-up photograph came about because not only was the female form revealed in all its splendour, but it also allowed the model a chance to put her own personality into the picture. Often, burlesque actresses were hired as models and semi-nude photographs appeared on the cover of publications and throughout; while these would now be termed softcore, they were quite shocking for the time. Later on publications masquerading as “art magazines” or publications celebrated the new cult of naturism, with titles such as Photo Bits, Body in Art, Figure Photography, Nude Living and Modern Art for Men. Health and Efficiency, started in 1900, was a typical naturist magazine in Britain.
In this way the nude photograph caused a sexual response from the viewer as well as an appreciation of the artistry of the picture. Erotic postcards enjoyed considerable popularity at the turn of the 20th century. They could always be obtained, by those in the know, from suppliers in every walk of life who were out to make money from a profitable trade.
The majority of the pin-up cards were mild by today’s standards. They were created to show a pleasing image which would entertain and stimulate the viewer. These images have innocence about them. Although often saucy, they were not the blatant images seen in the top-shelf magazines around today.
In spite of the contrived coy poses of the models these vintage photographs have great charm. The use of a primitive lens, slow film and daylight studios created a luminous quality which any glamour photographers would be happy to achieve in their work today.