A Potted History of the Erotic Postcard
Nude pictures prior to 1835 generally consisted of paintings and drawings. That year, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented the first practical process of photography. Unlike earlier photographs, his daguerreotypes had stunning quality and did not fade with time. The new technology did not go unnoticed by artists eager for new ways to depict the undraped feminine form. In Nude photography, 1840–1920, Peter Marshall notes: "In the prevailing moral climate at the time of the invention of photography, the only officially sanctioned photography of the body was for the production of artist's studies. Many of the surviving examples of daguerreotypes are clearly not in this genre but have a sensuality that clearly implies they were designed as erotic or pornographic images".
The daguerreotypes were not without drawbacks, however. The main difficulty was that they could only be reproduced by photographing the original picture. In addition, the earliest daguerreotypes had exposure times ranging from three to fifteen minutes, making them somewhat impractical for portraiture. Since one picture could cost a week's salary, the audience for nudes mostly consisted of artists and the upper echelon of society. Nude stereoscopy began in 1838 and became extremely popular. In 1841, William Fox Talbot patented the calotype process, the first negative-positive process, making possible multiple copies. The technology was immediately employed to reproduce nude portraits.
The French pioneered erotic photography, producing nude postcards that became the subject of an officer's letter to President Abraham Lincoln after they were found in the possession of U.S. troops, according to An Underground Education by Richard Zacks. A Brief History of Postcards explains, "A majority of the French nude postcards were called postcards because of the size. They were never meant to be postally sent. It was illegal".
Instead, nudes were marketed in a monthly magazine called the "La Beaute" that targeted artists looking for poses. Each issue contained 75 nude images which could be ordered by mail, in the form of postcards, hand-tinted or sepia toned. Street dealers, tobacco shops, and a variety of other vendors bought the photographs for resale to American tourists.
Early 20th century
The early 1900s saw several important improvements in camera design, including the 1913 invention of the 35-mm or "candid" camera by Oskar Barnack of the Ernst Leitz company. The Ur-Leica was a compact camera based on the idea of reducing the format of negatives and enlarging them later, after they had been exposed. This small, portable device made nude photography in secluded parks and other semi-public places easier, and represented a great advance for amateur erotica. Artists were enamored with their new ability to take impromptu photos without carrying around a clunky apparatus.
Early 20th century artist E. J. Bellocq is best remembered for his down-to-earth pictures of French prostitutes in domestic settings in the red light district of New Orleans. In contrast to the usual pictures of women awkwardly posed amid drapery, veils, flowers, fruit, classical columns and oriental braziers, Bellocq's sitters appear relaxed and comfortable. David Steinberg speculates that the prostitutes may have felt at ease with Bellocq because he was "so much of a fellow outcast".
Julian Mandel became known in the 1920s and 1930s for his exceptional photographs of the female form. Participating in the German "new age outdoor movement," Mandel took numerous pictures in natural settings, publishing them through the Paris-based studios of A. Noyer and PC Paris[. A Johns Hopkins University scholarship was named in his honor.
Another noteworthy nude photographer of the first two decades of the 20th century was Arundel Holmes Nicholls. His work, featured in the archives of the Kinsey Institute, is artistically composed, often giving an iridescent glow to his figures . Following in Mandel's footsteps, Nicholls favored outdoor shots.
Many photographs from this era are damaged; Bellocq, for instance, frequently scratched out the faces of his sitters to obscure their identities. Some of his other sitters were photographed wearing masks. Peter Marshall writes, "Even in the relatively bohemian atmosphere of Carmel, California in the 1920s and 30s, Edward Weston had to photograph many of his models without showing their faces, and some 75 years on, many communities are less open about such things than Carmel was then" .