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Private pleasures: an example of French photographic erotica


A little later a thousand hungry eyes were bending over the peep-holes 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. 

– Charles Baudelaire, 18591C. Baudelaire, ‘Photography’ (1859), in Photography: Essays & Images, ed. B. Newhall, London, 1980, p. 112. 

In Charles Baudelaire’s famous diatribe against photography he makes mention of a popular, though rarely considered, aspect of mid-nineteenth-century photographic practice – that of erotic or pornographic images. References to such works are scattered throughout the journals and books of the period and, although the writers are invariably disparaging, their comments do indicate that erotic photographs were produced from the time of the invention of the medium, in large numbers.2A number of these references are quoted in G. Ovenden & P. Mendes, Victorian Erotic Photography, London, 1973, p. 9. To indicate the number of erotic photographs produced, the authors cite the trial of one Henry Hayler, a London photographer, whose catalogue of 130248 ‘obscene’ photographs and 5000 stereoscopic slides was seized by police in 1874. For further references to contemporary responses to pornography, see also A. Scharf, Art and Photography, London, 1968, pp. 98–101; W. C. Darrah, The World of Stereographs, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1977, pp. 158–9. 

Erotica may form a substantial sub-category in photographic history, but there has been relatively little critical recognition of that fact. One aspect of the problem may lie with the nature of erotica, which insistently involves the viewer in a dynamic of looking that can be confronting and uncomfortable. Perhaps because of this, and because of the sometimes transgressive nature of these photographs, mainstream photographic critics have largely excised them from their histories.3Traditional photographic histories (for instance Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography) mention early photographic nudes only if they seem securely located in the tradition of the académie, or academic nude study. For an excellent select bibliography of literature dealing with mainly modern erotic photography, see J. H. Pearson, ‘Erotic and Pornographic Photography: Selected Bibliography’, History of Photography, vol. 18, no. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 47–9.

Surprisingly, too, these early photographs have attracted relatively little attention from feminist critics and others interested in the politics of representation. Given the highly contested nature of issues regarding erotica and pornography, it is curious that photographs that so clearly delineate a ‘sexual economy of looking’ are so little regarded.4One of the few well-considered articles on this area is A. Solomon-Godeau, ‘Reconsidering Erotic Photography: Notes for a Project of Historical Salvage’, in A. Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photography – History, Institutions and Practices, Minneapolis, 1991, pp. 220–304. Part of this phenomenon is no doubt related to accessibility: as with nineteenth-century photography generally, early images must be preserved and circulated before critics can draw proper conclusions.5This situation is certainly changing slowly, with more authors making use of early daguerreotypes in their articles and books. For an excellent recent publication on how the body has been photographically represented from 1839 to today, see W. Ewing, The Body, London, 1995. By its very nature, erotica belongs more to the private domain and, as a consequence, few early erotic photographs have ended up in public collections. 

It is fortunate, therefore, that the National Gallery of Victoria recently had the opportunity to acquire an excellent example of early French photographic erotica. This hand-coloured stereo daguerreotype of a naked young woman was taken around 1852 by a now unknown photographer (fig. 1).6There has been some conjecture that the Gallery’s daguerreotype is one of several produced by Bruno Braquehais (1823–1875), since the model who appears in the Gallery’s image also features in a work attributed to Braquehais. The attribution of the variant image to this artist is on the basis of its featuring a distinctive leaf and giant bindweed tapestry as a backdrop; this tapestry was used as a floor-covering in a firmly attributed paper print by Braquehais, in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. However, the author who attributed the daguerreotype to Braquehais has noted that his theory is provisional, presumably because the plate size is an uncharacteristic choice for that artist (see S. Nazarieff, Early Erotic Photography, Paris, 1993, p. 180, repr.). Because of this uncertainty I am leaving the attribution of the Gallery’s work as unknown, until more evidence can be obtained. The daguerreotype is a unique image on metal (containing both positive and negative on one highly polished plate) and was popular in the relatively brief period before technological advances allowed the commercialisation of the photographic medium. Unlike paper prints, which could be mass produced and sold for little cost, daguerreotypes were relatively expensive items whose prices initially restricted their circulation. 

Photographs of nudes in the mid-nineteenth century vary considerably in terms of stylistic devices and aesthetic values but generally such photographs fall into one of three categories. One major type was of a man or woman posed in the manner of an academic nude. These photographs were often produced for sale to artists interested in using such images as study aids, and were the only type of photographic nude in the period that could be exhibited without disrupting contemporary moral values. 

Other photographers produced work that was more obviously erotic and which often mimicked the titillating fantasies of high art. Studio photographers used a variety of props and backdrops to create stock tableaux such as the oriental bath-house or women at their toilette. These images vary considerably in terms of ‘quality’, ranging from carefully arranged and highly aesthetic productions to often ludicrously transparent excuses for voyeurism. 

The third category is that of the more overtly sexual image, whether heterosexual or homosexual in nature. Such images use similar stylistic codes to those found in the other two types of photograph but are more explicitly concerned with ‘transgressive’ behaviour. These illicit images were not distributed openly through studios but formed part of an underground market, being either sold privately to wealthy clients or, more commonly, mass produced as paper stereo cards or prints for ‘under-the-counter’ distribution. 

The audience for the Melbourne daguerreotype is difficult to establish, but the fact that the woman is posed in a manner reminiscent of poses in classical art allows us to assume that it was created for clients who were aware of art history or that the photographer intended it for public display. Most critics now consider that the major audience for, and collectors of, nude photographs were artists, who saw them as an alternative to the traditional académies, or academic nude studies. These photographs were an important aid for artists, who used them instead of hiring a studio model. 

The first examples of nude photography were created in France between the 1840s and the 1850s and it is from artists living in that country that most of the documentary evidence of their use derives.7It is interesting to note that French photographers were the first to produce nude and erotic photographs. As more of these early daguerreotypes are discovered it will be possible to draw conclusions as to whether cultural differences have influenced the types of erotica produced by France and other countries, most notably England. Gustave Courbet, for instance, referred to photographic nude studies by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve in preparing his paintings of the 1850s. Eugène Delacroix also found photographs of nudes to be of considerable use in his artistic practice and is known to have owned an album of photographs by Eugène Durieu, of posed male and female models.8See Scharf, pp. 90–3; F. A. Trapp, ‘The Art of Delacroix and the Camera’s Eye’, Apollo, vol. LXXXIII, no. 50, April 1966, pp. 278–88. Referring to daguerreotypes of nudes Delacroix notes: 

Many artists have had recourse to the daguerreotype to correct errors of vision: I maintain with them … that the study of the daguerreotype if it is well understood can itself alone fill the gaps in the instruction of the artist.9Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, cited in Scharf, p. 89. 

A case for the Gallery’s work being part of the tradition of études académiques could be made on the basis of both the woman’s ‘aesthetic’ pose and the relatively discreet fashion in which she is lying. By placing the model on her side with her pubic area and genitals hidden, the photographer has ensured that these ‘forbidden’ body areas are not revealed and that this photograph could, if desired, be included in exhibitions such as those held by the Société Française de Photographie. 

It is important to be aware that the three categories of erotica outlined here are by no means independent of each other, and it is a notable aspect of this type of work that many photographs – the Gallery’s among them – fluctuate for the viewer between an academic nude and an image with more obvious sexual intent. The visual rhetoric of both the ‘erotic’ and the ‘pornographic’ can be remarkably similar and this makes clear definitions of either problematic. It can be argued that the decision about what constitutes an acceptable or unacceptable image is provisional, and is intrinsically connected to shifting social mores and, ultimately, to the opinions of the viewer. The instability of these classifications has led Solomon-Godeau to suggest that, rather than designating the content of the photograph as ‘permissible’ or ‘offensive’, we should examine the relationship of subject to object. She argues for a feminist analysis of the so-called deep structures of nineteenth-century erotic/pornographic photography, whereby the ‘systemic quality of objectification and fetishism in the representation of women … [can reveal] the complex network of relations that meshes power, patriarchy and representation’.10Solomon-Godeau, p. 236. 

From this perspective, the Gallery’s photograph can be regarded as a fascinating illustration of aspects of this power relationship. It reveals much about how the female body has been culturally encoded and also shows some of the distinctive ways in which photography – as opposed to other media – deals with this most loaded and contentious of subjects. 

In this photograph a number of stylistic devices have been employed to ‘offer the woman up’, as it were, for the visual pleasure of the intended male gaze. The photographer has carefully positioned the model in a partially reclining pose reminiscent of classical painting. She is lying on her stomach, with one hand supporting her head and with her hips improbably tilted to raise her fleshy pink buttocks towards the viewer. This pose is intended to take advantage of a stereoscopic trick that made it possible for parts of the body – in this case the woman’s buttocks – to appear exaggerated when the image was looked at through a special stereoscopic viewer. 

The photographer has also emphasised other sexually charged aspects of the young woman’s body, such as her hair, which has been untied and falls over the body in a manner traditionally associated with wanton abandon. The whiteness of the body has been accentuated as a result of the placement of the model on a bed of dark floral material that has been delicately hand-coloured. This environment of sensuous tactility suggests that the woman is as soft and yielding as the cushions on which she lies. 

It appears that this work was intended to be part of a series of similarly posed nudes. There is at least one other extant stereoscope that apparently features the same model in a slightly different pose.11See Nazarieff, pl. 186. In this photograph the naked woman is partly lying on a cushion and has raised the top part of her body by leaning her elbows on a chair. Her long hair has been tied up and her lean white body is highlighted against a dark background. As in the Gallery’s photograph, the emphasis is on the woman’s buttocks, which are positioned so that they form the main focus of the image. 

The visual provocation apparent in the Gallery’s photograph and in the variant work indicates that these images are something other than straightforward académies. Photographers such as Durieu or Villeneuve created images that emphasised distance between the viewer and the viewed. Their models, while not without sensuality, are sublimated into the aesthetic code of the ‘nude’.12For the classic study defining the concepts of the naked and the nude, see K. Clark, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, London, 1956, pp. 1–25. Clark notes the disjunctive effect frequent in photographs of nudes when he observes that such images do not contain ‘the harmonious simplifications of antiquity. We are immediately disturbed by wrinkles, pouches and other small imperfections which, in the classical scheme, are eliminated’ (p. 4). The criticism that photographs capture ‘too much’ of the truth is levelled especially against daguerreotypes, which are felt not to have the warm ‘finish’ of paper prints. As Solomon-Godeau has commented, these photographs show generalised ‘figures’, not ‘bodies’.13Solomon-Godeau, p. 225. 

With the Gallery’s photograph, however, there is no mistaking that what we are looking at is a naked body. The intensely voyeuristic experience of viewing this image is apparent from the moment we see it as the photographer intended it to be seen, that is, through the lenses of a stereoscopic viewer. This apparatus combines the two images into one and focuses our gaze unremittingly on the body of a naked young woman who appears almost alarmingly lifelike. Stereoscopes produce a three-dimensional effect similar to the simulacra created by holograms or virtual reality games. 

In common with the ‘peep-shows’ that developed around the mid-1850s, the stereoscope creates a disarming illusion of visual and psychological intimacy that heightens the viewer’s sense of voyeurism. Although the metallic finish of the daguerreotype somewhat distances the woman from her flesh and blood origins, the illusion of a palpable corporeality is still strong. 

The American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes evoked the almost tactile sensation of viewing through stereoscopes when he wrote in 1859: 

By means of these two different views of an object, the mind, as it were, feels round it and gets an idea of its solidity. We clasp an object with our eyes, as with our arms, or with our hands, or with our thumb and finger, and then we know it to be something more than a surface.14O. W. Holmes, ‘The Stereoscope and the Stereograph’ (1859), in Newhall, p. 56. 

In their creation of erotica, photographers may appear to continue in a tradition whose codes have long been established by painters and other artists. However, there is a significant sense in which photographs are fundamentally unlike works produced in other media, because what we look at in a photograph once existed in reality, no matter how mediated or constructed that reality may be. The sense that we are viewing a person who once existed adds an altogether new element to this genre. 

Although the woman in the Gallery’s photograph is not identified as an individual, with a name and life history, there is the tantalising knowledge that some time around 1852 she entered the studio of a French photographer, took off her clothes and spent a few hours arranging herself in a series of rather uncomfortable positions. No matter how willingly or not she undertook this job, the way that she did so makes the sublimation of this woman into the generalised and impersonal framework of the ‘aesthetic’ difficult to sustain.15This is not only the case with photography. Perhaps the most obvious parallel case in painting is Manet’s Olympia, 1863 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), where the artist has painted a woman in a manner that transforms an academic nude into a study that is confrontingly personal. 

In many erotic photographs an element of complicity is built into the dynamic of the work, with the models coyly or openly acknowledging the viewer with a provocative gaze. In the Gallery’s photograph the woman’s expression is altogether less clear – is it self-absorption that is playing across her face, or slightly nervous resignation to the process of being offered up in this manner? Whatever the answer, this scene of voluptuous nakedness is by no means a simple extension of classic erotic traditions but is a reworking of those visual codes through the distinctive lens of a new medium. 

Isobel Crombie, Senior Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1997).

Notes 

1     C. Baudelaire, ‘Photography’ (1859), in Photography: Essays & Images, ed. B. Newhall, London, 1980, p. 112. 

2     A number of these references are quoted in G. Ovenden & P. Mendes, Victorian Erotic Photography, London, 1973, p. 9. To indicate the number of erotic photographs produced, the authors cite the trial of one Henry Hayler, a London photographer, whose catalogue of 130248 ‘obscene’ photographs and 5000 stereoscopic slides was seized by police in 1874. For further references to contemporary responses to pornography, see also A. Scharf, Art and Photography, London, 1968, pp. 98–101; W. C. Darrah, The World of Stereographs, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1977, pp. 158–9. 

3     Traditional photographic histories (for instance Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography) mention early photographic nudes only if they seem securely located in the tradition of the académie, or academic nude study. For an excellent select bibliography of literature dealing with mainly modern erotic photography, see J. H. Pearson, ‘Erotic and Pornographic Photography: Selected Bibliography’, History of Photography, vol. 18, no. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 47–9. 

4     One of the few well-considered articles on this area is A. Solomon-Godeau, ‘Reconsidering Erotic Photography: Notes for a Project of Historical Salvage’, in A. Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photography – History, Institutions and Practices, Minneapolis, 1991, pp. 220–304. 

5     This situation is certainly changing slowly, with more authors making use of early daguerreotypes in their articles and books. For an excellent recent publication on how the body has been photographically represented from 1839 to today, see W. Ewing, The Body, London, 1995. 

6     There has been some conjecture that the Gallery’s daguerreotype is one of several produced by Bruno Braquehais (1823–1875), since the model who appears in the Gallery’s image also features in a work attributed to Braquehais. The attribution of the variant image to this artist is on the basis of its featuring a distinctive leaf and giant bindweed tapestry as a backdrop; this tapestry was used as a floor-covering in a firmly attributed paper print by Braquehais, in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. However, the author who attributed the daguerreotype to Braquehais has noted that his theory is provisional, presumably because the plate size is an uncharacteristic choice for that artist (see S. Nazarieff, Early Erotic Photography, Paris, 1993, p. 180, repr.). Because of this uncertainty I am leaving the attribution of the Gallery’s work as unknown, until more evidence can be obtained. 

7     It is interesting to note that French photographers were the first to produce nude and erotic photographs. As more of these early daguerreotypes are discovered it will be possible to draw conclusions as to whether cultural differences have influenced the types of erotica produced by France and other countries, most notably England. 

8     See Scharf, pp. 90–3; F. A. Trapp, ‘The Art of Delacroix and the Camera’s Eye’, Apollo, vol. LXXXIII, no. 50, April 1966, pp. 278–88. 

9     Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, cited in Scharf, p. 89. 

10     Solomon-Godeau, p. 236. 

11     See Nazarieff, pl. 186. 

12     For the classic study defining the concepts of the naked and the nude, see K. Clark, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, London, 1956, pp. 1–25. Clark notes the disjunctive effect frequent in photographs of nudes when he observes that such images do not contain ‘the harmonious simplifications of antiquity. We are immediately disturbed by wrinkles, pouches and other small imperfections which, in the classical scheme, are eliminated’ (p. 4). The criticism that photographs capture ‘too much’ of the truth is levelled especially against daguerreotypes, which are felt not to have the warm ‘finish’ of paper prints. 

13     Solomon-Godeau, p. 225. 

14     O. W. Holmes, ‘The Stereoscope and the Stereograph’ (1859), in Newhall, p. 56. 

15     This is not only the case with photography. Perhaps the most obvious parallel case in painting is Manet’s Olympia, 1863 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), where the artist has painted a woman in a manner that transforms an academic nude into a study that is confrontingly personal.