Vintage erotic photography 1845-1920

Anonymous c.1845

Photography began in 1826. The first nude (a male self-portrait) around 1840. The earliest 'erotic' photo I can find around 1845. I should point out that a nude photo is not necessarily erotic, pornography never. But what quality is it that makes an image erotic? Today we are bombarded by visual cliches, and it is hard to find anything in the commercial or creative world that is in any way original. In the world of fashion photography Helmut Newton set the bar so high in the 1970's that no-one since has seriously challenged his achievement. And today's cult of celebrity with body modification and photo manipulation tools result in beauty and desirability looking distinctly alien.

At first glance we might admire the apparent naivety of the early attempts at erotica in photography. Keep in mind that the first photographs required long exposures, certainly taxing for the models. Many of the photos in this post were taken in Paris, and while we might admire French liberalism the reality was the models were often girls who had fallen on hard times. Modelling may have been a slightly more attractive proposition than prostitution or virtual slavery. The photos themselves are a strange mixture of attempts at 'art', sexual humour, enticement or just 'naughty'. What effect they had on their audience is unknown, but we do know that a number of photographers specialised in the field and made a living from their sales. They also reflect the development of technology and techniques in photography.

I have selected a number of favourites from the vast repository that is available through the very wonderful Wikimedia Commons website, and posted them here under the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license public domain 'copyleft' principles. 

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Anonymous c.1920