Louis Daguerre is one of the founding fathers of photography, but little did he know, his invention opened a secret door down a street in Victorian-era London. Needless to say, this article is NSFW.
When one thinks of Victorian England, it might be conjured as images of large, layered garments, coal-blackened men, and portly royals. It seems so far back into the past that it's too far removed from modern society to draw many parallels. That said, my great grandparents were born in that era, which puts it in generational spitting distance. In fact, in a small trove of my own family pictures, hidden away in my loft, are a few prints from the late 1800s.
The invention and increasing accessibility of photography made the 19th century an exciting time, and we have one man who deserves more thanks than most for it.
Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre was a photographer and inventor who introduced the world to a publicly available photographic process known as the Daguerreotype, which was the first of its kind. Daguerreotype photography used a process where silver-plated copper was polished, treated with fumes to make it light sensitive, and then exposed in a camera (you can read more about the process by clicking here). There have been recent and successful attempts to recreate this technique. This moment for photography was so profound primarily due to Daguerre's method having unparalleled detail and image quality and because it reportedly did not fade over time like its rival techniques.
This premiere of public photography reached all ends of the globe after its announcement in Paris, 1839. One such place to receive the process via the purchase of a patent by Richard Beard was Britain. From this, the meandering path to a small street in London begins. However, the daguerreotype was not the father of depictions of nudity; it just took them one large step forward and in a direction Victorian morality was not remotely on board with.
Depictions of Nudity and the Camera
Depictions of nudity and eroticism (not to be conflated) date back as far as the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras. In fact, at the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, England, a cave at Creswell Crags has been found to contain a 12,000-year-old stylized interpretation of the female genitalia. From then on, in just about every single civilization that has ever lived, there have been explicit paintings, sculptures, engravings, drawings, and even graffiti. From Peruvian erotic pottery to paintings of Priapus in Pompeii and his prodigious phallus, depictions of nudity and eroticism have been prevalent. So, it is no surprise that once photography become more readily available to the public, that particular brand of art came with it.
With cameras now a viable tool for the creation of art, many artists began to dabble in portraiture, with artists outside of England, like Bruno Braquehais and Félix-Jacques Moulin, having great success. In England, however, that sort of material was to be tightly guarded. English illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne (whom I am writing my next article about) worked for the famous Punch magazine and began a long-standing obsession with capturing working class women. That interest soon turned to creating what we would now call "artistic nudes" of these working class women, but prints of which in the Victorian era were regarded as obscene and pornographic. As a result, photographic nudes and erotic imagery created with cameras were thrust underground to evade the judging eye of the Victorian public and later, lengthy custodial sentences and prosecution.
One such host for nude photography was a small, seemingly innocuous street in central London. In fact, it soon became famous as the hub in London for acquiring everything from artistic, high-end nudes, through to... more blunt creations. That little dilapidated road in Victorian era London, was Holywell Street.
Holywell Street and the Black Market for Pornography
Holywell Street was a thoroughfare road that once run parallel with the Strand, before being destroyed when the Strand was widened in 1900. It was known as "Booksellers' Row" by the Victorians, but its otherwise forgettable history has instead been immortalized by its eminence in the trade of early photographic pornography.
Holywell Street looked almost like a kind of remnant of Tudor London. It didn't look Victorian and modern; it was full of lurching timber frame houses, creaking shop signs, and the whole thing was dark. It was dominated by the Spire of Mary le Strand, which loomed over it. You would have had carts piled high with books rumbling down [the street] outside thirty or so book shops. — Dr. Matthew Green (Stephen Fry's Victorian Secrets)
Inside some of these book stores were vaguely secret collections of pornography. The advent of printing had resulted in a wealth of erotic material, starting back in the fifteenth century. These were popular and depicted everything from nudity to extremely graphic works of intercourse, with no detail spared. However, with the introduction of the daguerreotype method of photography, and then William Fox Talbot's calotype process in 1841, pornographers and photographers ushered in a new age for porn.
The earliest daguerreotype pornography was not only startlingly high quality for the time and initially rare, but was colored by hand and sold for a high price. However the wealthy presented their interest (usually as fine art collectors), the demand for pornography spanned all classes, and as a result, photographers began to create cheaper alternatives. The subjects of early photographic pornography had invariably been the lower classes, and now, they were also the target audience for the sales of the results.
In 1857, the British government moved to ban the sale of obscene material, and the courts had the power to search for illegal pornography, seize it, and then destroy it. Many of the photographers, the shop owners, and even those involved in printing the images were imprisoned and forced into hard labor, where a large portion of them died.
The Obscene Publications Act was a somewhat failed attempt to stop the freedom of photography that had emerged, with fast-growing industries dedicated to the production and distribution of pornography, albeit through clandestine methods down creaky, old roads. The demand for knowledge, experience, and images of sex was high and universal across all walks of life. The courts wanted to stem that moral bleeding as they saw it and avoid the corruption of young minds.
Conclusion and the Sequel
The movement the daguerreotype process started was deep, dark, and dramatic. However, more interesting than the trade were some of the characters creating these sought-after portraits. One of the more interesting of these, whose images have been featured twice in this article, was Edward Linley Sambourne, and my next article will be about this artist and how he was arguably the first street style photographer in history, along his less public art. When that article is published, a link will appear here.
Lead image a composite using "Lily Pettigrew" by Edward Linley Sambourne (1889). Image in the Public Domain and used under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.