Friday, November 5, 2010

Ninetenth century lesbian photographic nudes

Two women and a chair, Anonymous 1885

Here, we present some early nudes, with a lesbian theme, from the early decades of photography.  Whilst in many cases the faces of the women give a sort of historical distance to the pictures occasionally, as with the young lady on the left in the picture above, you catch a glimpse of features that could have come from today and the gulf in time closes, bringing an immediacy to them which increases their erotic impact.   Even today, there is a certain frisson in realising that with these pictures you are looking at images of young women who were born around 150 years ago, indulging in what then would have been regarded as almost unthinkably naughty behaviour for the lens.

Two women, Anonymous (1885)

As we mentioned in our previous post the arrival of photography enabled the promulgation of erotica comparatively easy for the first time.  It became industrialised and, through the medium of postcards became available to the average citizen.  For much of history the existence of visual erotica was unknown to all but a few wealthy individuals who were able to buy or commission original works of art or limited edition prints.

Two women, Anonymous (1885)  The strange pornographic habit of portraying women sticking their tongues out at each other remains to this day

The first female photographic nude is not known but several sources fron the nineteen thirties mention dates as early as the eighteen forties.  The big issue with regard to photograping people, of course, was the issue of exposure times.  Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), inventor of what would become known as the daguerreotype, stated that he didn't need "any more than a brief period of from three to at the most thirty minutes, depending on the season."  By the early eighteen forties, even with improved lenses and more sensitive plates exposure time was still around 30 seconds.  The first widely available daguerreotypes of nudes started to appear in Paris in the mid eighteen forties where they were sold at opticians (perhaps they were hoping that as a result their clients would start to go blind) and art dealers.

Woman penetrating another, Anonymous (1885)

The attraction of these photographs was largely that, for the first time, they represented real women.  This was in contrast to the idealised product of the imagination of an artist who, even if using a real woman as the basis for the image, was still manipulating it extensively through not only the technique but the medium itself.  The attraction was similar to the later efforts by Playboy to dub its centrefolds as "girls next door" in the nineteen fifties and intimate that they were not professional models but "real people".  A person that the viewer could, possibly, actually meet.  Likewise, when Penthouse started publishing in 1965 it declared that none of its Pets had posed nude before.  In the nineteen seventies Gallery magazine boosted its circulation by getting readers to send in picture of their wives or girlfriends.  They, perhaps, weren't as attractive as the professional models but the key selling point of all of these approaches was that they were of "real" girls and not the product of the same sort of image manipulation, in a way, that the earlier artists undertook.  Some of the very early Playboy centrefolds, for example, actually look closer to contemporary pin-up art than photographs. 

Two women, Anonymous (1855)

Although these early photographs were often composed in a way that aped classical poses found in art and sculpture before long more overtly erotic works were being produced, ranging from the portrayal of women displaying their genitals, through to lesbian encounters and actual intercourse. 

Deux jeunnes filles couchées, Felix Jacques-Antoine Moulin (1850)

Many of the photographers, such as those responsible for these images, preferred to reamin anonymous.  Even in France, where most of these image originated, the law punished those who took and, especially, distributed such photographs.  In 1851 the well-known Parisien photographer Felix Jacques-Antoine Moulin had his Monmartre studio studio at 31 rue du Fauborg raided and many of his pictures confiscated. Moulin had been taking nude pictures of young fifteen and sixteen year old girls since the early eighteen forties. He was fined 100 francs and imprisoned for a month.   His dealer, M Malacrida was sentenced to one year in prison and fined 500 francs.

Two standing nudes, Felix Jacques-Antoine Moulin (1850)  The scratches demonstrate one of the drawbacks of  the glass positives

Initially, the distribution of this new photographic erotica was limited by the process itself.  Daguerreotypes, as direct positives, are unique and were unable to be easily reproduced except by photographing them again.  Only around 5,000 daguerreotypes were ever produced, mostly in Paris. This made them expensive; and an erotic daguerreotype in the eighteen fifties could cost a week's salary.  From the authorities' point of view this was a blessing as their circulation was limited to those from the upper echelons of society.  Once photographic prints were easily available the authorities were fighting a losing battle.  In 1874 London police confiscated 130,000 photographs and 5,000 negatives of erotic subject matter from one distributor alone.

Two women in striped stockings 1, Anonymous (1885)

However, the demand for more and more photographs led to pressure on chemists to find ways of enabling the reproduction of pictures which took them back to the pre-daguerreotype calotype process invented by Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877).  By 1884 Geroge Eastman had essentially invented modern film, removing the neccessity for photographers to travel with cumbersome glass plates and bottles of chemicals.  By 1888 his Kodak camera was on the market opening up the possibility of easy location photography for the first time.   Initially, for technical reasons, erotic photographs were confined to the studio and sets had to be constructed to represent outdoor settings as with the ladies disporting in the "field" above.

Two women in striped stockings 2, Anonymous (1885)

Once the picture postcard had been created in the 1870s studios in Paris (and Berlin and Rome) were turning out hundreds of thousands of erotic postcards for the appreciation of the masses.  By the beginning of the twentieth century it is estimated that the erotic postcard insustry was employing 30,000 people in France alone.   The image of "naughty French postcards" remains strong even to someone of Agent Triple P's generation.  It is a sexual image that has become ingrained in the British psyche.  It used to be possible to pick these up in Paris until quite recently but these old cards have now become quite expensive.

Two women in striped stockings, 3 (1885)

By the time (1885) that most of these pictures were taken the classical poses and attempts to imitate fine art had gone, being replaced by the sort of poses that still remain staples of erotic photography today.  The French naughty postcard industry would continue until the beginning of World War 2, turning out tens of millions of cards which froze in time the sexual interests of generations from the past.  Very little which can be seen today had not already been produced by the end of the nineteenth century.

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