These days, nudity is so ubiquitous in our culture that we barely flinch. However, there was once a time when it was salacious to the extent of being criminalised. The story of its rise from the doldrums of the shrouded demimonde to the surface of everyday society is one that is heavily entwined with civilisation itself and says a lot about our fascination with the topic.
Unsurprisingly, erotic depictions did not merely begin with the camera, there are even Roman monetary coins displaying coitus. However, perhaps equally unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for camera flashes to soon start snapping flesh. When Louis Daguerre presented the world with the first high-quality camera, with images that didn’t fade, in 1839, he opened the world up to a new age of liberation.
Traditionally, nude art at the time in France had to be approved by the French government. Essentially, this practice was to ensure that the images produced had a certain artistic integrity, shall we say. The very first nude images were also orchestrated by artists and were initially dubbed as aids for the painters to work from.
However, the realism of photography began to collide with an increasingly modernised world whereby technology provided progress and artists soon began to see that the pictures were inherently more erotic than the works that they were producing. The transition came with a major hitch, most of the original nude ‘daguerreotypes’ were only seen by the artists themselves because they could not be reproduced.
The next big hitch came from the fact that it was significantly cheaper to visit a prostitute than to huddle around a single scantily clad image. The high prices of early nudes meant that they were only seen by the upper echelons of society. However, where there is money to be made, there is a way to make it cheaper. In 1841, William Fox Talbot patented the calotype process to get mass-produced images off the ground and from there a great artistic boom was born.
Once more, it is hardly surprising that this process was almost immediately used to share skin en masse. Travelling salesmen would loiter around train stations and women would carry stacks of them under their dresses and for a reasonable fee, you could own one of these pictures for yourself. This not only brought about a sense of sexual liberation, but it also changed art while it was at it, forcing eroticism on canvas into more surrealist forms.
Things had to still be kept under wraps, so to speak, but even this had a huge impact on society. Owing to the fact that most early pornographers would avoid prosecution by making use of postal systems, the delivery services of Europe were busier than ever before. Greater networking was needed to facilitate this our interconnectedness was suddenly furthered thanks to the clandestine process of exporting the flash of a nipple.
Many such processes continued and then the printing press brought magazines to the fore. In due time the hassle and steadily growing presence meant that the process escaped the demimonde and slowly slid into view of mainstream society. Always coinciding with greater sexual liberation, this piecemeal building has led us to where we are now.
The collection below is taken from the Taschen publication, 1000 Nudes: A History of Erotic Photography from 1839-1939. The novel “offers a cross-section of the history of nude photography, ranging from the earliest nude daguerreotypes and ethnographic nude photographs to experimental nude photography.”
Adding: “The period of time spanned by this work is from 1839 to roughly 1939, from the medium’s infancy to the end of the classic modernist period. Content-wise, the book pays tribute to the full range of pictorial approaches, from the manually elaborated artistic nudes of the turn of the century, enveloped in layers of theory, to the “obscene” postcard motifs which had not the slightest artistic pretension and were intended to exert a maximum effect on the buyer’s wallet.”
You can find out more and purchase your own copy by clicking here.