The Hot 1850s: Western Pornographic Daguerreotypes in Times of Shozan and Kuniyoshi
During the last twenty years of the Edo period, while classic shunga still prospered in Japan, there was a time of daguerreotype photography in Europe. This technology, invented by Louis Daguerre in 1839 lied in the usage of polished silver-plated coppers, which became sensitive to the light after had been treated with iodine vapor. Then a plate was exposed in the camera for a time that depended on the intensity of light. After these manipulations, the photographer also treated the plate with mercury fumes to make the image visible.
The surface of a daguerreotype was fragile, easily deforming, and required special treatment. Photographers of that time compared it to a wing of a butterfly. Despite the expensiveness of the whole process and the equipment, first pornographic shots appeared already in the 1850s. The photography became an analog of Japanese book-printing in terms of erotic production relatively soon.
The Idea That Was in the Air
In a preface to the book “1000 Nudes: Uwe Scheid collection,” Michael Koetzle says the following: “The concept of linking photography with erotic imagery remained unexpressed, which comes as no surprise in view of the repressive sexual code of ethics reigning during the 19th century. Yet the idea of representing the human body photographically was in the air nonetheless, as an early picture by Daguerre makes quite clear.
The 1839 work, entitled “Still Life with Sculptures” and which is a small-scale study of an imitation of the three graces in plaster, definitely can be considered as an hors-d’oeuvre, as a vague and yet to be redeemed erotic promise. An estimated 5000 daguerreotypes had been created – mostly in Paris – by around 1860.”
Anonymity and Lawsuits
The photographers who made sensual shots remained anonymous as well as shunga artists. Koetzle mentions the lawsuit against the photographer Felix Jacques-Antoine Moulin who worked in Paris between 1840 and 1850. He was sentenced to one-month imprisonment and a fine of 100 francs, while his dealer was convicted to one year of imprisonment and a fine of 500 francs. Photographic erotica was available only to the upper class as its’ cost was equal to an average weekly salary. First nude photographers were former painters or lithographers who turned to photography because their previous profession was not on-demand. Also, the newest way to make images astonished them: photographed figures seemed to be almost alive. Therefore, first pornographic images came as a shock to the people of the prudish 19th century.
On Morality and Artistic Decline
A modern medium, which was used to objectify the human body, went down the same way as the technology of book-printing. First images were obtained by aristocrats, which let the industry to the almost unproblematic existence. As time and technology went on, erotic photography became more profitable to producers and more available to different social layers, which expectedly led to the ban of this kind of business. Along with that, the growing demand for photography itself resulted in the decline of the artistic potential of this medium, so, according to Koetzle, the second generation of photographers was more interested in the economic potential of their job rather than in the development of art.
Pornography and Progress
In his “Short History of Photography,” German philosopher Walter Benjamin criticizes the photographers of his time for being talentless entrepreneurs and praises first mad enthusiasts who were truly magicians in their newly discovered realm. Ironically, pornographers were also among the mad pioneers, however, Benjamin could barely regard them as artists. Until nowadays, pornographers have to stay up to date and thus indirectly help with the development of every new medium, whether it is a recently invented VR or a Deepfake technology.
Sources: “1000 Nudes: Uwe Scheid Collection.” Benedikt Taschen, 2001
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