We have now reached the 1870s in our journey through history. This decade, again, featured a dramatic change to the previous decade (which we will see as a theme throughout this project). The strict social codes we saw in the 1860s were just a bit too strict. People wanted nudity, but didn’t want to seem obscene while viewing it. They needed a solution, and it came in the form of fine art.
By emulating classical works of art and producing photographs with a fine painterly quality, complete with a sophisticated title, nudity was now socially acceptable. It was considered a fine art and lost some of the stigma. Interestingly, Queen Victoria even purchased “The Two Ways of Life” – a naughty painting featuring two separate group images in identical poses – one clothed and the other not. This was given as a gift to Prince Albert.
In a parallel line to pin-up photography, we are now seeing the development of other, non-socially acceptable types of photography. Vulgar erotic photographs are being taken and kept in private collections. The largest raided private collection contained 130,248 obscene photographs and 5,000 stereoscopic slides – although this was from London.
Also notable during this time period was the development of a new dry plate process for photography. Previously, a wet plate process required a new plate constructed for each photo session. This new process allowed you to have premade plates that you could have ready to go or store for future use. Think of it like our modern film, only much larger and more awkward to handle. You could now do so much more than the old process. This also led to cameras being notably smaller than they previously were. The mechanical shutter was also introduced, greatly increasing the ability for quick images. For the first time, a camera could now be handheld and exposures were quick enough to stop motion.
With the new process, a new branch of photography started for the first time – the figure study. It originated when photographer Eadweard Muybridge created a series of images of a horse running – showing a horse without legs on the ground for the first time ever. The uses for this type of photograph were amazing – as one could now see what the animal looked like at all stages of the run, with high detail, which was perfect for painters and other artists. It wasn’t long before painters of the time requested similar images of females. A nude student or model would pose in a natural position while a photograph was taken. This image was then used as a reference for doing paintings and sculptures. It is important to note that this is the decade when this images originated – as this type of photography has an influence on the development of pin-up photography. Although it originated with good intentions, it was still seen as taboo. It was to such a degree that a famous painter, photographer, and teacher – Thomas Eakins – lost his teaching position and credibility for creating over 800 of these figure studies. His poses weren’t vulgar, nor different than many of the other images created in that time period. What varied was his purpose in them. If he had used a strategic cloth drape and a fancy title, his work would have been fine art. Instead, he did studies on forms and muscles for his paintings with appropriate titles.
The 1870s produced some gorgeous works of art – previously seen in images created by the painting masters – but in photographic form. And towards the end of the period, the technology advances with camera size and plates, helped push the genre forward.