63. A Collection of 56 Erotic Glass Negatives

By Photo-Hall and Lumière, Paris, second half 19th century
Average size: 10 × 9 cm
‘Gelatino-Chlorure d’Argent’ & ‘Chlorure-Bromure’ with three original boxes

This collection raises an obvious and interesting issue: the difference between pornography and art. The border between the two is forever shifting, and attitudes differ widely in different parts of the world. The great temple carvings at Khajuraho cannot be considered pornographic, however graphic their depictions of human sexual activity. The marvellous masterpieces of Japanese Shunga prints were certainly intended to titillate, but they are also great art, so intention is not really a defining principle. One could say, I suppose, that they celebrate the most elevated experience of human life, but even so they were not intended for a wide public. Again, the usual view that the sculpted sexual emblems of Antiquity – Greek, Etruscan, Roman and so on – are a reflection of some kind of ‘fertility cult’, seems to me to entirely miss the point. Go to Hattusha in Anatolia if you don’t believe me. There, not far from the citadel, is a cleft in the basalt hillside carved with a beguiling procession of temple prostitutes. It is said that every Hittite woman had to serve a day a year at the temple. If such a benign system existed here, our churches would be full, singing the praises of the Lord.

Some of the images in this collection are clearly intentionally pornographic, and rather off-putting as a result, I find, although mild compared to what the internet now provides. But they are not so shocking to us as they would have seemed one hundred years ago. A number of the more demure slides bear the caption ‘L’Etude Academique’, and resemble the paintings familiar from the 19th century, both in the traditional academic style of, for example, Gericault, and the Impressionists. Renoir said something to the effect that he painted with his penis. So the question is: why is a painting of a nude woman standing in a bath-tub painted by Degas or Bonnard considered art, while a photograph of the same subject is often labelled pornography? In the Tate Gallery, near the amazing Epstein sculpture of Jacob struggling with the Angel, is a picture by Stanley Spencer, showing him with his mistress, about as graphic a portrayal of sexuality as you can find. It’s there for the public to see, an intense image of intimacy.