There is very little that is new under the sun, so it stands to reason that erotic photography flourished in the 19th century as an early passion of the first generation of photographers. From posed studio nudes to the exotic naturalism of nude Africans unselfconsciously attending to the chores of tribal life, much of this vintage eroticism is either Pictorialist or documentarian in nature, and a good many of its photographers remain anonymous. But there is no denying the daring ambition and, often, the elegance of the medium's earliest purveyors of erotica.
At the same time, the camera was an inevitable accomplice in a new era of pornography, and there are anonymous images of men and women sexually cavorting, though the photos that survive tend to be less explicit than we have come to expect.
In this exhibit, many photographs tend toward the studied and serenely Victorian, with female nudes demurely posed. Whether in lingerie or haughtily contextualized in a boudoir, these nudes are early exemplars of the male gaze, displayed as sexual trophies and objectified as the only the camera can. It would not be too long before Picasso’'s modernist paintings would fracture the planes of traditional nudity, but in the meantime 19th-century photographers were breaking ground well enough on their own.
Thus, the likes of Pierre (Auguste) Delbet, Felix Moulin, and Emile Reutlinger staged their nudes as statuesque players in a carefully lit and furnished theater of classical grace and gesture. The erotic purpose of such studio work is apparent, yet the determined artistry of the photographers, who were pushing the bounds of propriety in a new medium, is equally evident.
The quality of many of these images--as compositions of human expressiveness and experiments in suggestive lighting and formal ambition--is high. At their best, these early photographers were seeking to meet such classical inspirations as the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s sculpture on equal ground. The irony is that the camera has always had a harder time idealizing the human form, in all its realism and naturalism, than the original plastic arts were able to do before photography joined them. But these early images certainly set a standard for erotic display that endures. We see it in the work of many modern and postmodern photographers who struggle to make more of the human body than a merely sexual object.