A Brief History of Erotic Photography

By Stephen Bayley

Please be advised that this article includes images of nudity and images of a sexual nature which some viewers may consider indecent.

LONDON - Ahead of the Erotic: Passion and Desire sale in London on 16 February, author and critic Stephen Bayley looks at how the portrayal of sex has fascinated some of the greatest photographers.

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.


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.

But sometimes "artistic nudes" became dirty pictures. As well as Moulin's soft-focus pubescent girls with vestigial breasts dressed as Bedouin maids, there were more explicit under-the-counter daguerreotypes of amateur teenage girls which got him a month in prison.  The Paris police declared they were "so obscene that even to pronounce the titles would be to commit an indecency".


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.


Zeigler painted women as if they were architecture: perfect domical, hemispherical breasts, columnar legs and a marmoreal sheen, an erection of Albert Speer's, perhaps. Newton's nudes are similar: magnificent, but prim.  Again, with Newton, machinery plays its part in the iconography. This picture in his "Domestic Nudes" series was shot in the laundry room of Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, a hotel once described as a "bordello for the damned".  Indeed, it's been said that while Newton's photographs may lack spirituality, they have a strong sense of the occult.

And, as if to prove a connection between Eros and Thanatos, it was in the Chateau Marmont car park that Newton died when he crashed his Cadillac twelve years later... tragically appropriate for a photographer whose nudes have the solid presence of architecture, but the animation of crash test dummies.


Like Michelangelo's Medici Tomb, Robert Mapplethorpe's nude women look like men with a 36D bust.  Indeed, his familiar model was Lisa Lyon, winner of the first Women's Body Building Championship in Los Angeles in 1979.  Mapplethorpe adored her body and, in conspiracy with her and his Hasselblad, used Lyon nudes to disrupt the visual cliches of his own gay gym culture. Bruce Chatwin described Mapplethorpe's nudes as "cold and sharp".  Adding "satanic".

WIM DELVOYE, PIPE 1 . ESTIMATE £6,000–8,000 AND MAN RAY, '1929' . ESTIMATE £6,000–8,000.

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.

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