Whether it be painting, sculpture, engraving or lithography, all of these forms of art have been at the service of eroticism from their beginnings. Photography is no exception to the rule. The first photographic processes, the daguerreotypes, were enriched from conception by nudes, which offered an imagery reminiscent of the painting of the time, albeit in a more realistic and crude manner.
Photography was born in France. The very first images are only of landscapes or reproductions of objects. It was very difficult to photograph nudes or take portraits given that a posing time of several minutes was required. However, this duration was reduced to tens of seconds shortly after. While the process became international, France retained its hegemony particularly with regards to erotic photography, which appeared immediately. The first nudes must have been taken as early as 1840.
According to Sylvie Aubenas in her preface for “Obscenities,” a certain Noël-Marie Paimal Lebours, optician by trade, maintains he photographed a nude in 1841, while being very careful about appearing to be “the” precursor. The same year, Talbot discovered the calotype. This was the first negative, forefather of our modern celluloid films. As the calotype was on paper, the process was complicated, not very reliable and not very practical.
It was not until 1853, however, that real progress was made when the Englishman Frederick Scott Archer invented the negative on glass, which permitted reproduction on paper in unlimited quantity. From this date on, certain photographers made nudes their speciality. They mimicked artists and painters by making pastiches of their compositions and the use of accessories such as draping, columns and fabric. In fact, most of the precursors of photography came directly from painting. The interconnection between the two processes seemed obvious: photographers were inspired by painters, and painters made use of photography. With photography, artists no longer had to put up with models who either did not turn up or were late. Unlike models, who can often be offhand, photographic images are always at your disposal and are hardly ever late. Delacroix, ardent champion of the new art, was inspired by the images of his friend, the photographer Eugène Durieu, for his works. Ingrès appreciated “this automatic process”.
“How beautiful, how beautiful!” he declared to his students when contemplating a large print of antique marble. “Photography is such an admirable thing! Look, Gentlemen, who among us would be capable of such faithfulness, of that assurance in the interpretation of the lines, of that delicacy in the contours? Ah yes, to be sure Gentlemen, photography is very beautiful. It is very beautiful but we mustn’t say so!” Unlike the other fine arts, the very nature of photography means that it cannot idealise its subject, and when faced with a naked body, the boundary between art, the nude, eroticism and pornography is very difficult to define given that the differences are so much a question of culture and education.
It is obvious that what is erotic for some will be considered pornographic for others. From the very beginning of photography there was, on the one hand, a pornographic production; and, on the other hand, there was a production that was recorded and registered at the Print room of the Imperial Library under Napoléon III. This was later to become the National Library from the third republic on, in order to obtain authorisation to commercially exploit the negatives as “studies for painters” or “nudes” (“nude” refers to an undraped human figure, used since antiquity in painting and sculpture).
The master forerunners of nude photography were all French. They were the heirs of the miniaturists of the 18th century. Their names were Auguste Belloc, Vallou de Villeneuve, Felix-Jacques-Antoine Moulin, Bruno Braquehais and Alexis Gouin. They worked in Paris, lived in the same district around the Grands Boulevards, knew each other and swapped their models, accessories and sometimes even their images, thus drawing a red herring across the trail of the police and making it difficult nowadays to attribute to one or the other these images that they wanted to be anonymous.
The appearance of the photographic nude, which was cruder than that of sculpture or painting, had difficulty in becoming a feature of artistic practice. With photography, the body is the reflection of reality and could no longer be touched up. Each image freezes a moment of truth, and it is sometimes better not to know the truth…
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