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Historical Erotic Photography

It's often said the difference between pornography and erotica is simply a matter of lighting. Do you want forensic attention to sexual details or subtle evocation of mood? But there's a difference of intention too. One involves coercion and disgrace, the other beauty and delight.

Historical Erotic Photography

Pornography and erotica predated the camera - blushing art historians may under pressure confess that Titian's Venus of Urbino is clearly masturbating - but the new image-capture technology of the nineteenth century increased the supply and demand for both.

The respectable pioneers of French photography, Auguste Belloc and Felix-Jacques Moulin for example, ran lucrative occult trades in pornography. Often these pictures were described as "artistic nudes" and were registered at the Bibliotheque Nationale as study materials for painters. Delacroix himself used Eugene Durieu's nude photographs.

Mid-nineteenth century cameras dictated the style of contemporary erotic photographs: available technology always influences the expression of art. There are studio pictures showing frock-coated photographers man-handling cumbersome plate-cameras and tripods before nudes who would have to hold a stiff pose for fifteen seconds. Only a certain sort of image arises from such circumstances.

But Oscar Barnack's 1926 Leica camera changed the way all photographers worked: it was compact, fast, light and its cassette of film allowed multiple shots without re-loading. This new mobility was a catalyst to creativity in sophisticated erotic photographs in much the same way as smartphone cameras and the internet have recently globalised crude porn.

This modernist mobility was the context of Man Ray. His friends Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia sensed the sexual symbolism of machines: Picabia found even carburettors erotic. But Man Ray's astonishing image attributes sexual significance to an electric hairdryer.

At once this suggests Courbet's L'origine du monde, the history of art's most famous groin shot, as well as the "hallucinant" (deranged) state of mind cultivated by the Surrealists. Man Ray actually sent this picture to Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, whose belief was "beauty must be convulsive". As indeed it would be with a blast of hot air entering the vagina. This powerful, transgressive photograph blurs the frontiers of pornography and erotica.

Helmut Newton, the last man to photograph Salvador Dali, learnt about photography and women in Berlin in the thirties: as a boy he acquired a Zeiss Ikon Box Tengor and, simultaneously, his brother introduced him to the city's busy brothels. His genre became highly stylised de luxe porn, but his influences were unusual, considering his Jewish background. He admired Leni Reifenstahl, who produced propaganda for the Nazis, and his statuesque nudes reflect the sculptures of Arno Breker and the paintings of Adolf Zeigler, both favourites of Hitler.

To be sure, an element of darkness is often present in erotic photography. Hans Belmer's sinister trussed nudes suggest violent sado-masochism while the death's-head skull in Wim Delvoye's disturbing X-ray image of fellatio reminds us that one French expression for orgasm is "petit mort" (a little death).

But there is uncomplicated desire and delight in erotic photography too. Bob Carlos Clarke's nudes are deliciously, tangibly, texturally sexy and Gunter Sach's "Ascot" is an innocently puerile and benignly pleasurable realisation of male voyeuristic fantasies. Meanwhile, Nobuyshi Araki takes erotic pictures which play with ambiguities and make clever visual puns.

Helmut Newton once said a woman wearing a monocle would drive him "sexually insane". That's certainly one response to erotic imagery. Another is to marvel at the beautiful enigma of sex when imagined by great photographers.

The Kinsey Institute research collection contains thousands of examples of erotic imagery produced over centuries by artists around the world. When the new technology of photography was announced in France in 1839, it was not long before it became the most popular medium for depictions of the nude figure, as well as erotic imagery. The first photographic process to be widely used was the daguerreotype, which produced a unique image. With the invention of other processes that used negatives to make multiple prints, the mass production of erotic photographs became possible. Hold That Pose features daguerreotypes, tintypes, albumen and gelatin silver prints, stereocards, and other examples of photographic processes that were used by professional photographers in the 19th century to produce and distribute erotic material.

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

The history of erotic depictions includes paintings, sculpture, photographs, dramatic arts, music and writings that show scenes of a sexual nature throughout time. They have been created by nearly every civilization, ancient and modern. Early cultures often associated the sexual act with supernatural forces and thus their religion is intertwined with such depictions. In Asian countries such as India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Japan and China, representations of sex and erotic art have specific spiritual meanings within native religions. The ancient Greeks and Romans produced much art and decoration of an erotic nature, much of it integrated with their religious beliefs and cultural practices.[1][2]

In more recent times, as communication technologies evolved, each new technique, such as printing, photography, motion pictures and computers, has been adapted to display and disseminate these depictions.[3]

In early times, erotic depictions were often a subset of the indigenous or religious art of cultures and as such were not set aside or treated differently than any other type. The modern concept of pornography did not exist until the Victorian era. Its current definition was added in the 1860s, replacing the older one meaning writings about prostitutes.[6] It first appeared in an English medical dictionary in 1857 defined as "a description of prostitutes or of prostitution, as a matter of public hygiene."[7] By 1864, the first version of the modern definition had appeared in Webster's Dictionary: "licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii."[8] This was the beginning of what today refers to explicit pictures in general. Though some specific sex acts were regulated or prohibited by earlier laws, merely looking at objects or images depicting them was not outlawed in any country until 1857. In some cases, the possession of certain books, engravings or image collections was outlawed, but the trend to compose laws that actually restricted viewing sexually explicit things in general was a Victorian construct.[3]

When large-scale excavations of Pompeii were undertaken in the 1860s, much of the erotic art of the Romans came to light, shocking the Victorians who saw themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Roman Empire. They did not know what to do with the frank depictions of sexuality, and endeavored to hide them away from everyone but upper-class scholars. The movable objects were locked away in the Secret Museum in Naples, and what could not be removed was covered and cordoned off so as to not corrupt the sensibilities of women, children and the working class. England's (and the world's) first laws criminalising pornography were enacted with the passage of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857.[3] Despite their occasional repression, depictions of erotic themes have been common for millennia.[9]

Among the oldest surviving examples of erotic depictions are Paleolithic cave paintings and carvings. Some of the more common images are of animals, hunting scenes and depictions of human genitalia. Nude human beings with exaggerated sexual characteristics are depicted in some Paleolithic paintings and artifacts (e.g. Venus figurines). Recently discovered cave art at Creswell Crags in England, thought to be more than 12,000 years old, includes some symbols that may be stylized versions of female genitalia. As there is no direct evidence of the use of these objects, it is speculated that they may have been used in religious rituals,[14] or for a more directly sexual purpose.[15]

The ancient Greeks often painted sexual scenes on their ceramics, many of them famous for being some of the earliest depictions of same-sex relations and pederasty. Greek art often portrays sexual activity, but it is impossible to distinguish between what to them was illegal or immoral since the ancient Greeks did not have a concept of pornography. Their art simply reflects scenes from daily life, some more sexual than others. Carved phalli can be seen in places of worship such as the temple of Dionysus on Delos, while a common household item and protective charm was the herm, a statue consisting of a head on a square plinth with a prominent phallus on the front. The Greek male ideal had a small penis, an aesthetic the Romans later adopted.[3][22][23] The Greeks also created the first well-known instance of lesbian eroticism in the West, with Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite and other homoerotic works.[24]

Rafael Larco Hoyle speculates that their purpose was very different from that of other early cultures. He states that the Moche believed that the world of the dead was the exact opposite of the world of the living. Therefore, for funeral offerings, they made vessels showing sex acts such as masturbation, fellatio and anal sex that would not result in offspring. The hope was that in the world of the dead, they would take on their opposite meaning and result in fertility. The erotic pottery of the Moche is depicted in Hoyle's book Checan.[27] 041b061a72


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