And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 19 January 2013


Erotic postcards
 “An intellectual is a person who’s found one thing more interesting than sex.”
Aldous Huxley

 A scholarly history of the erotic postcard would be an admirable undertaking, particularly as it is full of problems obvious before even beginning. One is that actual facts are rare. People didn’t keep open and detailed records, so the statistical data that would reveal how popular or lucrative the market was doesn’t exist. Another is that most photographers didn’t identify themselves on the cards and the best known studios, Julian Mandel and Yva Richard, didn’t have a look they could call their own. Also, it’s hard to find information that isn’t weighed down with ideological encumbrances. Not being a topic for polite society, it’s no surprise that the greatest amount of information comes from the organizations dedicated to suppressing the trade. The various committees against vice found in America and Europe were good at accounting for the number of magazines and photographs they had destroyed in the last month. A problem is that their definition of pornography was broader than the general population’s, so a lot of images considered filth in their eyes were mild by most other standards. The example above by Reutlinger wouldn’t have survived the flames. When Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice announced it had put 5000 photographs to the torch, how many of those would have met the definition of depraved in most people’s opinion? And let’s not forget, these societies worked on the message that the country was under assault by pornographers dangerously close to corrupting the entire society. When it came to publishing figures, exaggeration was required. They not only had to give the impression that a wave of obscenity was sweeping the country but that despite their best efforts they were in imminent danger of losing the fight. In that situation big numbers would get reactions even if they were completely false. 

A place to start might be to ask who were the photographers behind the trade. The answer appears to be pretty much all of them. Anybody who ran a decent sized studio in a major city regarded the erotic postcard market as a legitimate aspect of their business, well, so far as they were prepared to take it on. There must have been some who considered it a matter of principle not to get involved but generally speaking, whenever the archives are investigated it isn’t long before the erotica comes to light. Some companies, like Reutlinger, made it a stock in trade but it sat alongside their chaste and sentimental line in portraits of children and animals. Basically they responded to customer demand, whatever that meant. The photographer dedicated to manufacturing pornography, inevitably a man of dirty appearance and habits (and frequently a foreigner), was an image concocted by moral guardians. What we know is that some of the most respectable studios in Europe ran a sideline in erotica, and some of those were operated by women.

So what about the women who posed? First hand accounts tend to come from two sources. On the one hand there are the women like Kiki of Montparnasse who not only openly admitted that they posed but knew it added another frisson of scandal to their reputations. A typical story from the age is that the woman arrives in Paris – having been deserted by her lover from the ranks of the minor nobility – and desperate for some money takes on a bit of work that in normal circumstances she thinks is beneath her. Either that or, yes, before she became recognized across Europe as a great dancer she too was forced to do things she is not proud of. It might have sounded like a chapter from a cheap novel but terms of self-promotion it only added to her allure. 

The other side of the coin is the model as innocent victim. Oddly (not really), this one tends to emerge in court trials where the vice committees had a hand in the arrest of the photographer. Apart from protecting society against pornography, one of the self-appointed jobs of the vice committees was to save young women from its clutches. Typically, she had arrived in the city with no money or friends and soon felt the wicked grip of the unscrupulous photographer. Given the attention some of these trials attracted, it served the woman well to also portray herself as victim, especially if family, friends or her official employers were likely to read about it. Sometimes a small detail muddies the story; it emerges that she has form, she assaults the police when they barge in, some point between the original account of the arrest and the trial she undergoes a transformation of character. There are reports of women turning on their so-called saviours, of being taken to a safe location only to escape at the first opportunity. What bothered people then, and still does, is that being an artist’s model might not have been respectable but that didn’t mean women were unwilling.

What about the customers? In his book, Erotic French Postcards, Alexandre Dupony says that a lot of cards were sent by French women to their boyfriends at the front during World War 1. This sounds so typically French; it’s difficult to imagine Australian women doing that, still there’s a hint that Dupony might be trying to let the customer off the hook. It is rare to find these postcards with messages on the back, such as you would therefore expect: “Tu me manque, Pierre”. Not that we can base much of an argument on that but we do know that companies usually advertised their photos for sale in magazines using language that made it obvious what was on offer: ‘artist model photos for sale’, that sort of thing and it was normal, or common, to buy them in sets. That leads us to think the standard customer was a man looking to add to his collection. He was probably married, with children, wore a bowler hat and handlebar moustache and considered himself an aesthete. The really expensive stuff, the limited edition large format photogravures, was beyond the reach of his wallet.

You might wonder why Paris was the centre of the industry. There is plenty of evidence to support the usual arguments that it was a more liberal city than London or New York but there’s a couple of things to consider. Firstly, there’s a point where ‘liberal’ and ‘exploitation’ start to merge. Paris was also famous for its human zoos, where under the guise of education the citizens could go and stare at African villagers who were literally behind cages. And there’s a reason why Nazism and fetishism became entwined. The upper echelon of the party was dominated by men with stunted attitudes to sex; the type who watched porno films but couldn’t look a real woman in the eye. Also, it’s easy to think of the Casino de Paris and the Moulin Rouge and forget that most Parisians didn’t set foot in those places. On Sunday mornings they were more likely to be on their way to Mass than nursing a hangover with some chorine they’d met backstage. What it might be about isn’t Parisian openness so much as strident prudishness in other places. America in the 1920s had prohibition. People could be forgiven for thinking anything went in Paris. 

If you have seen Auguste Belloc’s stereographs from the 1860s you’ll think this one from the 1930s is moderate, even discreet (If you haven’t, go to Courbet’s Origin of the World, painted at the same time. It is tame in comparison.). You will also realize that any talk of historical development in photography of the nude is largely ephemeral; Belloc’s work is as hardcore today as it was then. The notion that the real photo postcards that flourished in France between the 1900s and the 1930s represent some kind of shift in aesthetics is nonsense. The only shift to speak of is commercial, which is a problem if you were writing a serious history because it wouldn’t be long before you found yourself examining technical production, modes of transmission and economic processes, all of which, your viewers would agree, are beside the point. Not that they’d mind if the book was lavishly illustrated.


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