Mirrors are for porn. Reflecting on early pornphotography #nsfw

I was hinting to this posting, or rather to the fact that it would be written one day soon, many times already. Most recently it was in the posting about James Tissot, and before that, in the one about Ingres.  Both postings touched on the issue of photography and the way it impacted (or even directly influenced) a process of art making of these artists. During the first half of the 19th century, almost immediately after photography was invented, both artists and public at large heatedly debated if this new craft can be regarded as art. Photography eventually scored, a few times, and by now largely won. Although even today a lot of people would treat even the best examples of photography as a second sort art (if at all), and the situation became even worse with the proliferation of digital cameras and the everyone-a-photographer mantra.

Equally tense were the debates within the traditional art circles, and about art itself. For example, whether art could be still considered ‘true’ one if made with an aid of photography? Or whether the main perceived goal of artworks, the depiction of ‘reality’, should remain intact in the presence of photography? The latter makes this job perfectly and without much effort.  These are interesting questions, still bothering the minds of many people.

These and other photography-related issues should have been dealt with much earlier in this blog. In some way, photography had to appear in this blog almost from the start because it is essentially the work of mirrors! Surprisingly I barely touched this topic yet, of photography and photographers. I could recall only one or two postings about photographers.

Perhaps the time has come to undo this oblivion and begin to write about mirrors and photography more often. This posting will be about the Very Beginning (although a rather piquant version of this beginning, I should add).

A couple of words about the above image. This is my own Rorschachesque collage based on a photograph made by someone Jean Louis Marie Eugène Durieu, one of the earliest French photographers.

Only a very few works of this artist survived by today, and none of them has any mirrors depicted, which makes them of a lesser interest for this blog.  But this particular work is quite remarkable, and of some historic importance, because it was used by Eugène Delacroix for this famous Odalisque (1854).

It just happened that Durieu and Delacroix were friends, and at some point the latter started to actively use the works of the former as a replacement for the real models. Apparently, Delacroix didn’t even bother to hide this fact, considering the use of photographs a useful aid for his art production.

The interactions between more established forms of visual arts (such as painting), and the new format, photography, were not always that smooth. More often, and especially during the 19th century, they were turning into the tense, even aggressive collisions, on a border of denying each other’s right to exist.  I wrote about some of these tensions here and there (for instance, in the postings about Breitner or Bonnard, and most recently, Ingres).  But today my topic is different, and I use this case of Delacroix more like an introductory vignette, to start a conversation (and I plan to write separately about Delacroix’s mirrors anyway.)

The topic of today is photography itself. Of course, and to make a proper introduction into this topic it would be great to find, for instance, the very first mirror depicted with the use of photography.  Do we know who has made the very first photo_art_mirror?

A few basic facts for a start.

The picture below is traditionally considered the very first photograph (or, to be pedantic, the earliest remaining one that we know of):

It was made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce around 1826, in Paris. What we see is a view from his window, captured with the use of camera-obscura and a plate covered by a special bitumen.  Niépce himself called this method heliography, not photography.

The process of making these first ‘photographs’ was very laborious and its chemical and physical principles were not very clear for the first inventors. There was a lot of trials and errors along the way, and the whole business resembled medieval alchemical labs in the beginning.

The very, very first moment of any development is always difficult to spot and today we can only guess about who was actually The One. Niépce himself was making many other probes years before this picture, and he was not the only one experimented with these processes. We can’t exclude that one day we may discover another ‘first photographer’, and the ‘first photograph’, all subject of additional (re)search and some luck.

For example, until very recently it was believed that this image was made during a few hours long exposure. It was so long that the sun managed to lighten both sides of the tower depicted on the right. But recent more careful research has shown that it took, in fact, a few days to make this picture!

And who knows, but perhaps somebody (a woman with a mirror?) was running around during this time and thus somehow is depicted in this picture, even in the most ghostly form?

Another important ‘first moment’ is the first depiction of a person on photograph. It is now beleived that this is the one below:

It was already made by Louis Daguerre, much later, in 1838, and employing a very different technique (the one we now call daguerreotype, after the inventor). The first daguerreotypes required if not hours but at least many long minutes to make, and in the beginning were unable to capture people.  In this case, one pedestrian (in the red square) was standing still enough, and long enough to get captured in this shot. The shoe-cleaner who was doing his work got into the picture too, so in fact it is a group portrait. Again, what if any of them would hold a mirror in a hand during this accidental shooting?

Today, in the time of obsessive selfie-making, it may seem strange that the first pioneers of photography didn’t rush to take the pictures of themselves. We have very few self-portraits of these early photographers (and not a single one where they would try to capture themselves in a mirror.)It was long believed that the very first self-portrait was made by Louis Daguerre, around 1840 (which would mean that he waited for two years before decided to shoot himself on camera).  Recently, however, another candidate has emerged, an American photographer Robert Cornelius, who apparently made his own portrait in October 1839.

It was long believed that the very first photographic self-portrait was made by Louis Daguerre himself, around 1840 (which would mean that he waited for two years before decided to shoot himself on camera!)

Recently, however, another candidate has emerged, an American photographer Robert Cornelius, who apparently made his own portrait in October of 1839. Here it is:

I have a large, 800+ pages volume called ‘A new history of photography‘ (ed. by Michel Frizot) that has this picture on its jacket cover.

This is a famous photograph of Countess Castiglioni and Her Son, made by someone Pierre-Louis Pierson (1822-1913). During his long life Pierson made hundreds, if not thousands of pictures of the French nobility.  This one is made in 1864, and it does show a small mirror. But it is made 25 years after the invention of daguerreotype! It is the

But it is made 25 years after the invention of daguerreotype! It is the earliest photograph with a mirror in this particular book, but it’s difficult to believe that there were no ‘mirror photographs’ made before that date. Indeed, there exist many earlier pictures, and I managed to find quite a few of them.

However, here comes a ‘piquant’ moment of with these findings.

The issue is that all these earlier mirror photographs belong to the category that we define as ‘erotic’ today, and many of them would go even as ‘soft porn’.

We know very well that the Internet if for porn. Many other technological inventions were ‘for porn’, too, or at least they had been quickly employed by the industry of ‘adult entertainment’. Photography is not an exception.

Below is a fairly typical example of an early ‘mirror photograph’:

This photograph is dated around 1850. It is believed that the artist who made it was French, but we don’t know his name. Both now and then the masters of erotic photography prefer remaining anonymous. Frankly, he could as well be an Englishman, or German, or Dutch etc. After its invention in France daguerreotype spread through Europe like fire.

We see some colors on this photograph, but this is is the result of hand coloring. Worth noting that the first pictures were very small. This one, for instance, is only 5,7 x 6.4 cm. And speaking about its composition, it’s not much different from the Ingres’ Countess d’Haussonville (only it show the reflection in a mirror more accurately.) I would add that mirrors of this type were called cheval mirrors (from French word for ‘horse’.)

Here is another photograph, also made by an unknown artist, and also in the early 1850s.

It is even smaller, 4,5 x 5.5 cm, and yet it manages to depict a fairly complex scene with a mirror. In fact, with two mirrors, since we see here a larger mirror on a toilette table, and a smaller one in the hands of the woman. Most likely it is the earliest photograph with two mirrors!

I keep planning to write a separate posting about this subject, the use of mirrors to inspect oneself. I already have quite a collection of such artworks, from different ages so it would be worth to write something line ‘Iconography of Inspecting’.  Although I somehow expected to find many more of them. It seems this topic of peeking at yourself with the aid of mirror has always been bordering with a perversion of some kind (look at the works by Balthus, for instance).

The earliest photograph with a mirror that I have found so far is this one:

This tiny oval portrait of a nude model in front of a mirror is dated 1846. Its official title in the literature is ‘[The Portrait of] Nude with Ornate Hairstyle Gazing at her Reflection in Mirror’.

However, if we try to zoom in and look more attentively at the reflection in the mirror, we can also spot a photographer (who should be standing behind the model to take such a picture)and perhaps even this camera:

In other words, the picture may be not only ‘the first mirror depicted in the photograph’ but also ‘the first self-portrait in a mirror’ (by yet unknown artist).

The pictures that I have shown above are literally just separate examples. They are taken out of all possible contexts, being it technological, social (including a business side), and all others ones.  I made some minimal efforts to collect more contextual information (and I will share what I found later), but I have to admit that my knowledge of these matters is still very rudimentary.  I would still love to learn more about the developments in early photography, and specifically about early erotic photography.

For example, I know about the book called Early Erotic Photography, by Serge Nazarieff, published by Taschen in 1993. But I didn’t have a chance to read it yet.

To be honest, I somehow don’t expect a really in-depth analysis of the matter in the book (but I am happy to get wrong on this). But I would appreciate getting at least the list of names of the most prominent artists and perhaps some interesting works.  While searching on the Internet, I found this photograph, for instance:

It has a mirror, but I don’t know much more about it.

Evern if not very comprehensive, but my search also brought information about a few photography artists who depicted mirrors in their works.

I will start with Félix-Jacques Moulin (1802 – 1875), apparently one of the first French commercial ‘adult’ photographers.  All his biographies start from the fact that he opened his studio in Paris in 1849 (more that ten years after the invention of daguerreotype). We know next to nothing about his earlier life (he was already 47 when he started his new business).  Interestingly, he described this previous occupation as “spécialiste des académies”, which in reality likely meant that he was making portraits of nude models. There is nothing indecent in this business per se, of course. We all remember Sgt. Colon’s saying that ‘Nude women are only Art if there’s an urn in it’.  I believe that Mssr. Moulin didn’t forget to add urns to his portraits.

When he switched to photography, his main production looked like this portrait:

Or perhaps it has started to look like that a bit later.  Because this type of works wouldn’t cause a swift reaction from the city authorities, who had to close the studio of Mssr. Moulin in less than half a year after its opening. The owner was fined and sentenced to a month in jail for his indecent production: “tellement obscènes que même l’énonciation des titresserait un délit d’outrage à la morale publique”, or “[the scenes] so obscene that even the naming the titles would be an offense for public moral.”]

The sentence specifically stressed a very young age of his models, who were 14-16 years. Today he would be definitely convicted as a pedophile, for mistreatment of the minors.  The rules were much more forgiving back then, and yet he got the sentence (albeit relatively soft, by today’s standards.)

But if we look at one of his works (not the most indecent, I assume):

and then compare it with another work:

we may not find much difference, the urn aside.

Yet the later work is universally considered as the ‘high art’ now (and it was considered as such already in 1856 when it was completed by Ingres).  See? It’s always worth listening to the wise words of Terry Pratchett Fred Colon.

Despite his earlier troubles with the authorities, Félix-Jacques Moulin has re-started his business in photography when he was released from jail.  It seems that he became more careful with both the subject and the models. Nevertheless, we know that he commissioned a second, secret escape from his house.

I showed this work already, but now want to present its full view:

The first daguerreotypes were made on glass, thus fragile. Plus they easily faded on the light, so they have been often placed in such boxes/albums, often richly framed.

Soon after the invention of daguerreotypy people figured that they could create a stereo effect, by making two slightly shifted images (stereo pair), and then looking at them through special glasses (today we would call it virtual reality prno). This is one of the examples by Moulin:

I remember that we used similar stereo-pairs in my childhood, but the content was limited to touristic sightseeing places or cartoons.  I don’t recall now how accurate/believable was their 3D effect.

A small detour: A couch on which the model reclines is called méridienne . One of their ledges was much higher than the other, and sometimes they only had a head ledge. These couches became very popular in the 18th century and were still in use in the 19th, a symbol of wealth and style. It was assumed that their owners could afford to a short nap in the middle of the day (in its meridian). This is still a name for such a small nap in French. Interestingly, but in English these couches got another name, fainting couch, i.e., literally the couch to fall if fainting (as usual, there is a number of theories speculating why they got this name).

I will show a few more examples of such stereo-pairs (I have selected here only those with the mirrors):

The next scene stages a certain plot, even if minimal: we see a woman doing her toilette in front of a mirror, with all the accessories around.

This work is dated around 1855s, and it makes clear that Degas, for instance, was not at all an innovator of the woman at her toilette scenes, as it is often presented. These pictures were widely available already during his youth, and in fact could have impacted Degas’ own ideas on both the subject and specific compositions.

Here is a very remarkable work. It is called Les Baigneuses, the Bathers (c.1855):

A woman entering, or trying water is a highly symbolic figure in the Western tradition, often interpreted as a loss of virginity, beginning of sexual life. The scene is erotic itself and becomes even more alluding if we add this possible metaphorical reading.

What is also interesting is that it also uses a mirror! Only not as a conventional looking glass, but as a way to imitate water.

I don’t know if this was Moulin’s own invention or a common trick used by many artists. I know at least one work by him where he used the same ‘water mirror’:

In addition to a more conventional meaning ‘Woman looks at her reflection in water’ we can also understand this scene as Narcissus.

Here I have to add that Moulin is also known for his works about very different subjects.  With time photography because if not mobile, then at least somewhat portable. ‘Portable’ of course means a few large boxes with all equipment and chemicals, but it still allows travels. First Moulin and his team startsvisting different European cities – for example, he made an interesting series of Roman ruins .

But he ventured even further, and in1856-58 made an epic tour to Algeria, where he does what we would call todal ‘visual ethnography’:

He takes pictures of very different scenes, more festive and special ones, but also many moments of common everyday life. These pictures were very valuable then, and they became even more with time. Here, for instance, a scene in a class in a ‘school’ for Algerian girls run by French teachers.

It is interesting to learn that such schools were possible already back then (the photograph is dated circa 1856), and it is also a good picture, photography-wise:

I don’t know if Moulin was also making pictures of ‘odalisques’ in the notorious famous ‘harems’. These subjects were very popular and widely present in the visual art of that time, a part of the Western obsession with Orientalism.

If this would be the case, we could have a chance to also see the photographs with ‘oriental mirrors’. Alas.

But mirrors aside, these tours by Moulins were the first examples of large-scale expeditions that used photography as a tool, and his images had been later actively used by various agencies to promote the role of France in colonial developments.

The second artist is Auguste Belloc (1800-1867).

Again, we know very litle about his early years of this artist. Similar to many others of his generation, he started with photography relatively late in this life, when he was already 45. Similar to many, he didn’t simply copy the processes developed by other, but actively developed his own. For instance, he invented his original colloid process (the technique that rapidly replaced early daguerreotypes), and described it in a treatise called Traité théorique et pratique du procédé au collodion en photographie.

However, in this blog Belloc appears mostly because of a large number of nudes with mirrors he made. Here is a couple of typical examples of his works (made around 1850-55):

 

The next few works are more inventive, they portray much more intense interactions with the mirrors when the models nearly embrace these mirrors.  I haven’t seen such examples before, not only in photography but in visual art in general.

Mirrors here are not just an element of interiors, but an important agency, an actor of the scene.

Even when Belloc portrays more conventional, passive relationships, he still tries to build a certain story. It could be as minimal as ‘a woman reading a book’:

to a more complex one, like this role-playing scene when one woman acts like a ‘nurse’ introducing a douche to a ‘patient’:

This combination, of an (allegedly) medical procedure and a mirror is not completely new, though. We have seen something of this sort already in the works of Abraham Bosse (Abraham Bosse and the mirrors in vista).

Auguste Belloc was a very prolific master and made hundreds of such erotic portraits. I am showing only those with mirrors, the majority of them were, of course, mirror-less. However, his art was not particularly well-received, and he was largely forgotten soon after his death. Only much later, already in the 20th century, he was re-discovered and praised for his inventive compositions.  The most complete catalog of this works published recently has a very indicative title- Obscenities:

 

I didn’t yet read this book either.

The next artist in this story is Louis-Camille d’ Olivier.  He belongs to the next wave of photographers. Bork in 1827 and being of the same age as the art of photography itself, he was still quite young when he started his practices as a photographer.  He actually started as a painter, specialised in portraits, but soon switched to photography.

Again, I am now showing only the works that has mirrors:

 

We see here a full spectrum, from more conventional passive settings with a very minimal use of mirrors, to much more active, playful scenes where interactions with the mirror are a central element of the composition.

The three-digit number on the cards point that their production was fairly industrial. It is really important to understand that there were plenty of these cards in circulation, and that they inevitably impacted both production and perception of more traditional forms of art, such as paintings, for instance.

The next picture is very interesting because we can also see the artist himself in the reflection:

In the following close-up I have tried to enhance the fragment with the artist and his camera:

Louis-Camille d’Olivier was not a pioneer of erotic group photography, but he clearly elevated this genre to a new height.  His couples (and sometimes even trios) are much more artistic that your average erotic composition of that time.

 

The last artist I would like to include into this review is Charles Nègre (1820-1880). Similar to d’Olivier, he also started as a painter (he even took lessons in the Ingres’ Academy of Art at some point).  As a result, we can say that the works by Nègre are even more ‘artistic’ compared to the rest.

Many of his work wouldn’t be even called ‘erotic’, but rather described as ‘sensual’. Often these are interesting psychological studies, on par with the paintings of Breitner or Bonnard.

Perhaps as a result of this refinement, mirrors play a much less prominent role here and often are barely visible (and yet there are there, of course).

***

As a way of summary:

– it is quite peculiar (to avoid the word ‘funny’) that mirror first appeared in overtly erotic photographs but not in more serious works. They will come there, too, but much later (and I will try to write about this pivot to the serious next time)

– earlier I mentioned the word ‘porn’ few times. As we have seen, this is not the case, all these works can be called erotic maximum.  I am sure that pornographic photographs also existed (we know that pornography existed in visual arts, and why would it stop before using photography too?) But I guess I would need to search through a much ‘darker’ web to find the examples of such things.  And even if I would find it, for a number of reasons I may find beneficial for this blog to limit its scope by a bit safer subject.

– and finally – this is only the beginning of conversation; there will be more authors, and more works, and more mirrors, of course.

To conclude, here is an allegoical work by Oscar Gustave Rejlander, another pioneer of photography. It is aimed to show the birth of the new form of art, photographic art. The baby is just born but he already give away the brushes. He doesn’t need them anymore, since he has a camera.

The photograph is made around 1865. Notice a wonderful convex mirror. Such mirrors only recently began to be fashionable in England where this Sweden-born artist lived at this time. Notice also his own portrait in this mirror.

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