The best of pioneering erotic photography

Yoshiko Yap

These days, nudity is so ubiquitous in our culture that undressed flesh barely causes us to flinch. However, there was once a time when it was salacious to the extent of being criminalised. The story of its rise from the doldrums of the shrouded demimonde to the surface of everyday society is one that is heavily entwined with civilisation itself and says a lot about our fascination with the topic. 

Unsurprisingly, erotic depictions did not merely begin with the camera, there are even Roman monetary coins displaying coitus. However, perhaps equally unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for camera flashes to soon start snapping flesh. When Louis Daguerre presented the world with the first high-quality camera, with images that didn’t fade, in 1839, he opened the world up to a new age of liberation. Thereafter all sorts of abstract styles have unfurled.

From the abstract style of Ralph Gibson to the painterly approach of Helmut Newton, all of these varying approaches to eroticism have been explored in stunning collections by the publishing house Taschen. They have forever delivered on their mission statement. “Since we started our work as cultural archaeologists in 1980,” it extolls, “Taschen has become synonymous with accessible, eclectic publishing. From our affordable Basic Art series to highly collectable limited editions, we are committed to making the best books on the planet at any prize and any size.”

Below we have compiled the best that they have to offer in the world of eroticism and explored what each style says about our changing gaze.

Taschen’s finest erotic photography:

Helmut Newton

1956 was the dawn of sexual liberation as existing ideologies were challenged by pop culture, post-war philosophies and the rise of contraceptive technologies. It was the same year that the snake-hips of Elvis Presley led CBS to the decree that he was only to be filmed from the waist up following his gyrating antics on The Ed Sullivan Show. Meanwhile, in the literary world, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious became the uber-salacious and provocative best-seller that thrust sex unapologetically into the living rooms of the masses. Helmut Newton’s snapping style formed the physical aesthetic of this movement.

The raucous ways of his youth were returning, and he was not only keen to capture them but to spearhead them while he coloured them in the hue of his own singular aesthetic. Throughout his life, he had been somewhat of a travelling outsider and that is how he saw his snaps, as he once declared: “I am a professional voyeur.”

In his work women boldly took centre stage and he ensured that they subtly soared therein. However, it is also notable that he was working in a period where liberation ran alongside sexual exploitation that we are still evidently coming to terms with to this day. “There must be a certain look of availability in the women I photograph,” he once said. “I think the woman who gives the appearance of being available is sexually much more exciting than a woman who’s completely distant. This sense of availability I find erotic.” Although this quote in itself might not be nettlesome on the surface, it is, nevertheless, indicative of the era he operated in. 

Helmut Newton: SUMO is available here.

Sie kommen, naked, French Vogue, Paris 1981
(Credit: Helmut Newton © The Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography)
(Credit: Helmut Newton © The Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography)
Shoe, 1983
(Credit: Helmut Newton © The Helmut Newton Estate / Maconochie Photography)

Ralph Gibson

When Ralph Gibson first ventured into photography, it was as an assistant. He continued in this role for both Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank as he developed his own keen eye. When it comes to not being behind the camera at the start of his photographic career, perhaps Gibson proves that the spectator sees more of the game, or the very least is privy to angles that the spotlight of being front and centre evades. 

His work has always involved fragmenting the usual frame and focusing on the narratives contained within minor details. As he has said himself of his approach, “I embrace the abstract in photography and exist on a few bits of order extracted from the chaos of reality.” This notion of order is something that is profound in his work. Subjects quite often seem to be on the move, but in the act of abstraction, he seems to render a vignette.

The results prove very evocative. As Gibson explains himself, “Even though fixed in time, a photograph evokes as much feeling as that which comes from music or dance. Whatever the mode – from the snapshot to the decisive moment to multi-media montage – the intent and purpose of photography is to render in visual terms feelings and experiences that often elude the ability of words to describe. In any case, the eyes have it, and the imagination will always soar farther than was expected.”

Ralph Gibson: Nude is available here.

(Credit: Ralph Gibson / Taschen)
(Credit: Ralph Gibson / Taschen)
(Credit: Ralph Gibson / Taschen)

Laurent Benaïm

Parisian photographer Laurent Benaïm is not someone who sees his camera as a paintbrush depicting pretty pictures and more so a means to bottling an emotion. “I have no criteria for aesthetic selection, only the expression of human desire interests me,” he once opined.

The capture of emotion, in this case, human desire, is something that he carries over into the production of his images too. His works are beautifully developed using the Victorian printing process of gum dichromate. Often using multiple layers, the process captures light in a painterly fashion. The light-sensitive dichromates in the photography process itself end up giving the images a living quality themselves. 

This naturalistic process is key to Benaïm’s overall artistic aim. “I’ve always been fascinated by sex, the diversity of practices, the will and perseverance of people to realize their fantasies,” Benaïm explains. “These moments of pleasure captivate me in all their forms: the beautiful, the ugly. I have no criteria for aesthetic selection, only the expression of human desire interests me.” His approach, therefore, brings a fitting naturalistic sense to the transgressive sides of eroticism. The images, despite exploring oddities, are not rendered gaudy or shocking, but simply expressive renditions of the human condition and the whole spectrum it stretches over.

Laurent Benaïm is available here.

(Credit: Tachen / Laurent Benaïm)
(Credit: Tachen / Laurent Benaïm)
(Credit: Tachen / Laurent Benaïm)

Nobuyoshi Araki

When Nobuyoshi Araki attended film and photography school at Chiba University in 1959, Japan was undergoing a tempestuous period of radical change. Finding creative impetus in the changing society surrounding him, Nobuyoshi Araki soon become one of Japan’s most prolific artists and while volume doesn’t always equal quality, Araki went about his splurge in such a daring way that it always proved progressive. His most prominent works relate to erotic portraits of modern Japanese women in a very voyeuristic yet performative gaze. 

This sexual bent to his art came from the liberation that Japan was experiencing on this front to as the Taschen publication Araki: Tokyo Lucky Hole, explains: “It started in 1978 with an ordinary coffee shop near Kyoto. Word spread that the waitresses wore no panties under their miniskirts. Similar establishments popped up across the country. Men waited in line outside to pay three times the usual coffee price just to be served by a panty-free young woman.”

There is hubris and humour in his dazzling work, sometimes startling and stark, but always with purpose and never banal, the one thing he captured above all was Japan in transition, which is certainly saying something considering the eye-opening acts at play on the surface.

Araki: Tokyo Lucky Hole is available here.

(Credit: Nobuyoshi Araki)
(Credit: Nobuyoshi Araki)
(Credit: Nobuyoshi Araki)

Ellen von Unwerth

Growing up in the spotlight of the catwalk as a supermodel before even such a term existed meant that Ellen von Unwerth knew all too well what it is what like to hold a gaze. Since she has entered the world of photography and is steadily subverting the way that gaze is cast in interesting and empowering ways that are changing the world of erotic imagery and adult storytelling.

In her collections, the pictures usually form a dramatic narrative as she revels in decadent worlds where flesh is celebrated along with flamboyance and a frisson of inherent humour. However, albeit that might sound like a lot is going on, the centrepiece remains the subjects, who, in their own way, have a separate intriguing story to tell.

As Ellen von Unwerth told Bazaar regarding her approach in 2018: “The women in my pictures are always strong, even if they are also sexy. My women always look self-assured. I try to make them look as beautiful as they can because every woman wants to feel beautiful, sexy and powerful. That’s what I try to do.”

Ellen von Unwerth: Fräueln is available here.

(Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)
(Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)
(Credit: Ellen von Unwerth)

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