Erotic photography is a style of art photography of an erotic and even a sexually suggestive or sexually provocative nature. Erotic photography is generally a composed image of a subject in a still position. Though the subjects of erotic photography are usually completely or mostly unclothed, that is not a requirement. Erotic photography should be distinguished from nude photography, which contains nude subjects not necessarily in an erotic situation, and pornographic photography, which is of a sexually explicit nature. Pornographic photography generally does not claim any artistic or aesthetic merit.
Since the 1960s erotic photography began to be less commonly referred to as such, to be increasingly described as glamour photography.
Erotic photographs are normally intended for commercial use, including mass-produced calendars, pinups and for men’s magazines, such as Penthouse and Playboy, but sometimes the photographs are intended to be seen only by a subject’s partner. The subjects of erotic photographs may be professional models, celebrities or amateurs. Very few well-known entertainers posed nude for photographs. The first entertainer to pose nude for photographs was the stage actress Adah Isaacs Menken (1835–1868) On the other hand, a number of well-known film stars have posed for pinup girl photographs and been promoted in photography and other media as sex symbols. Traditionally, the subjects of erotic photographs have been female, but since the 1970s erotic images of men have also been published.
Before 1839, depictions of nudity and erotica generally consisted of paintings, drawings and engravings. In that year, Louis Daguerre presented the first practical process of photography to the French Academy of Sciences.Unlike earlier photograph methods, his daguerreotypes had stunning quality and did not fade with time. Artists adopted the new technology as a new way to depict the nude form, which in practice was the feminine form. In so doing, at least initially, they tried to follow the styles and traditions of the art form. Traditionally, in France, an académie was a nude study done by a painter to master the female (or male) form. Each had to be registered with the French government and approved or they could not be sold. Soon, nude photographs were being registered as académie and marketed as aids to painters. However, the realism of a photograph as opposed to the idealism of a painting made many of these intrinsically erotic.
In Nude Photography, 1840–1920, Peter Marshall notes: “In the prevailing moral climate at the time of the invention of photography, the only officially sanctioned photography of the body was for the production of artist’s studies. Many of the surviving examples of daguerreotypes are clearly not in this genre but have a sensuality that clearly implies they were designed as erotic or pornographic images”.
The daguerreotypes were not without drawbacks, however. The main difficulty was that they could only be reproduced by photographing the original picture since each image was an original and the all-metal process does not use negatives. In addition, the earliest daguerreotypes had exposure times ranging from three to fifteen minutes, making them somewhat impractical for portraiture. Unlike earlier drawings, action could not be shown. The poses that the models struck had to be held very still for a long time. Another limitation was the monochrome image that the technology could produce. Because of this, the standard pornographic image shifted from one of two or more people engaged in sex acts to a solitary woman exposing her genitals. The cost of the process also limited the spread of the technology. Since one picture could cost a week’s salary, the audience for nudes mostly consisted of artists and the upper echelon of society.Stereoscopy was invented in 1838 and became extremely popular for daguerreotypes, including the erotic images. This technology produced a type of three dimensional view that suited erotic images quite well. Although thousands of erotic daguerreotypes were created, only around 800 are known to survive; however, their uniqueness and expense meant that they were once the toys of rich men. Due to their rarity, the works can sell for more than ₤GB 10,000.
In 1841, William Fox Talbot patented the calotype process, the first negative-positive process, making possible multiple copies. This invention permitted an almost limitless number of prints to be produced from a glass negative. The technology also reduced the exposure time and made possible a true mass market for low cost commercial photography. The technology was immediately employed to reproduce nude portraits, classified by the standards of the time as pornographic. Paris soon became the centre of this trade. In 1848 only thirteen photography studios existed in Paris; by 1860, there were over 400. Most of them made income from the sale of illicit nude images to the masses who could now afford it. The pictures were also sold near train stations, by traveling salesmen and women in the streets who hid them under their dresses. They were often produced in sets (of four, eight or twelve), and exported internationally, mainly to England and the United States. Both the models and the photographers were commonly from the working class, and the artistic model excuse was increasingly hard to use. By 1855, no more photographic nudes were being registered as académie, and the business had gone underground to escape prosecution.
The Victorian pornographic tradition in Britain had three main elements: French photographs, erotic prints (sold in shops in Holywell Street, a long vanished London thoroughfare, swept away by the Aldwych), and printed literature. The ability to reproduce photographs in bulk assisted the rise of a new business individual, the porn dealer. Many of these dealers used the postal system to distribute erotic photography, sending the photographic cards to subscribers in plain wrappings. Victorian pornography had several defining characteristics. It reflected a very mechanistic view of the human anatomy and its functions. Science, the new obsession, was invoked to ostensibly study the nude human body. Consequently, the sexuality of the subject is often depersonalised, and is without any passion or tenderness. At this time, it also became popular to depict nude photographs of women of exotic ethnicities, under the umbrella of science. Studies of this type can be found in the work of Eadweard Muybridge. Although he photographed both men and women, the women were often given props like market baskets and fishing poles, making the images of women thinly disguised erotica. Parallel to the British printing history, photographers and printers in France frequently turned to the medium of postcards, producing great numbers of them. Such cards came to be known in the US as “French postcards”.
The initial appearance of picture postcards (and the enthusiasm with which the new medium was embraced) raised some legal issues that can be seen as precursors to later controversies over the Internet. Picture postcards allowed and encouraged many individuals to send images across national borders, and the legal availability of a postcard image in one country did not guarantee that the card would be considered “proper” in the destination country, or in the intermediate countries that the card would have to pass through. Some countries refused to handle postcards containing sexual references (such as of seaside scenes) or images of full or partial nudity (including images of classical statuary or paintings). Many French postcards featured naked women in erotic poses. These were described as postcards but whose primary purpose was not for sending by post because they would have been banned from delivery. Street dealers, tobacco shops, and a variety of other vendors bought the photographs for resale to tourists. The sale of erotica was banned, and many of these postcards were sold “under the counter”.
Instead, nude and erotic photographs were marketed in a monthly magazine called La Beauté that was ostensibly targeted for 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.