1850s – History of Pin-Up Photography

1850s Pin-Up model by Chris Wooley

1850s Pin-Up Model using a Daguerreotype process (emulated) for the History of Pin-Up project.  Model Kala H.  Hair and Make-up by Abbey Crawford.

Welcome to the 1850s in America. This is the start of our journey as it is the first time in history when photography becomes possible for more than a select few individuals. The process is still time intensive, taking between several hours to several minutes to create a single photograph. But it is possible to photograph people now, provided they can sit still long enough. A new type of photographic process has arrived, the Daguerreotype.

As with any great technological feat, we set out to photograph what is most important to us. Yup, you guessed it – early photographers started taking pictures of boobs, and lots of them. The female form has always been an alluring subject for artists, from early sculptures to fine art paintings, we love the look of the naked female body. It seems only natural that once photography reached the hands of the public, that boob pics were to follow.

Now, nude photography isn’t legal in the United States. Yikes! It’s also illegal in England and France, too. This might seem like a hindrance, but some unique factors helped start the groundwork for the pin-up genre. We are in the Modern age at this point in America. The Victorian period has just started in Europe. We’ve been free of British rule for quite a while, but are still heavily influenced by their laws, society, fashions, and styles. America is also rapidly expanding as we increase our borders both towards Mexico and California. This mix of new influences, increased land, and uncharted laws allows for photography and styles to spread to new areas.

Most notably was a lack of enforcement of the no-nudie law (not the actual law name). With a large area, new technology, and a whole bunch of people who like boobs more than the law, it’s generally deemed OK to create this type of picture. The hard part was actually taking the picture.

This is where things get interesting. To create one of these Daguerreotype images, the model needed to be really well lit. We didn’t have fancy flashes or cool light modifiers like we do today. Instead we had one really big light source that was about 93 million miles away: the sun. So early photographers had top-floor photo studio with some nice natural skylights. They’d use the sun shining in through the window to illuminate the subject. But as bright as the sun was, it still wasn’t enough to get a quick snapshot. The model would have to sit – often for several minutes – without moving to get a single image. That’s pretty hard to do. Even the slightest movement would make the picture blurry. So we’ll often see models from this time period in “lounging” positions, sometimes even looking like they are asleep. Free standing just wasn’t an option as there was too much movement. If they wanted to try and stand up, be seated upright, or do anything other than lounging, it required putting their head in a make-shift brace to keep it from moving about.

So after a minute or two of posing for a picture, the photographer now had a single image. It was a one of a kind. There just wasn’t another way to get a duplicate of that image. So if he wanted to share the image with one of his buddies, he had to take two separate pictures. There was a couple of other options, like doing a Talbotype picture – but that just looked like a really bad photocopy of a black and white picture, had horrible grain in the image, and didn’t show off the subtle tones of the boobies very well. You could also try and photograph a photograph, but that also produced less than desirable results. So long exposures of “one-of” images became the norm.

To help reduce the amount of time needed to create the proper exposure of these pics, the models were often coated in a fine white powder so that their skin would reflect light better and thus expose the image quicker.
At this point in time, professional models didn’t exist. So photographers found the next best thing: whores. They were usually pretty and were very willing to get naked. The term Artist Model and whore were pretty much interchangeable at this point. This also helps set the bodytype we see in these early images. As the whores were the models, the plump voluptuous, Rubenesque women were the ones being photographed. That was generally considered the “sexy” body type of the time period.

A couple of other factors helped shape the early stages of the first pin-ups. Painters quickly discovered that a photograph worked really well for a reference image for paintings. Instead of having a model pose for hours in every changing light, a photograph could be created in a fraction of time and provide for greater consistency. The photographic influences on painting is a whole other subject though. But from this point, we see painters influencing how the girls are posed. A painter/photographer relationship is formed – allowing classical posing to be combined with the newly developed (pun intended) photography industry.

The second huge factor to spark this revolution was the Queen of England. In the mid-1850s, Queen Victoria saw a stereoscope 3D image and absolutely loved it. Now, it wasn’t of a nude woman, but her comments and public approval of the photograph was enough to launch some mass production of photographic equipment and viewers. Hundred of thousands of stereoscopic viewers went into the homes of the public, increasing the awareness of photographs and the camera technology. So naturally boob pictures were close to follow.

The images we have from this time period give us some pretty good insight into the consistency of the situation. Almost all of the nude pictures features a full figured woman lounging or resting to support themselves and hold still for the long photograph. They are mostly “studio” shots lit from top light or sidelight from a window. They are grainy from the Daguerreotype process. There is a nice gradation on the skin tones, but some of the shadowed areas, like in the hair and the background, get blocked out into solid dark areas. There might be some attempt to add some artistic merit to the images by having some simple props, drapes, or other setting in the image. As photography technology improved throughout the decade, long exposures and support were required less frequently to create the images.

1860s Pin-Up Photography  >>

1850s History Of Pin-Up Censored

1850s History Of Pin-Up Censored