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Erotic or Pornographic - Defining Erotica.

By Association Member China Hamilton.

Erotic or Pornographic - Defining Erotica.'Masks do very strange things to people' says China. 'If a woman wears a mask when I'm photographing her, she'll do more outrageous things because she knows she's anonymous'

It wasn't long after the daguerreotype had been unveiled in Paris in 1839 that a few inspired and imaginative chaps rushed off to find a willing maiden who would show all to the 'magic box'. The camera suddenly provided pictures of real people: this was and still is the camera's power. The subject had actually stood there in the flesh and showed what, for most, was a hidden view of nature.

Explicit drawings and paintings just weren't real enough, and although they had been fun, the realistic images of photography said far more. For example, a Bournemouth photographer in the 1890s was discovered to have a collection of 10,000 glass plates of less than 'respectable' portraits. Considering the technical difficulties of the times, he was surely a man dedicated to his work.

When we photograph a person naked or showing a little too much flesh, we enter a world that challenges taboos, even in modern society. Such pictures can be divided into three classes: those that portray the beauty of the naked form; those that elude to an honest, creative depiction of sexuality; and those that are, by most definitions, deliberately explicit. Many photographers have been drawn to the temptations of this complex subject and, because of the realism of photography, pictures can confront law and morality quite uniquely. It is this difficulty that provokes the challenge and, if you have tried, you will be aware just how hard it is. The subject contains all the problems a photographer faces when taking a head and shoulder portrait - plus the added concentration of our own sexuality.

Pornography has been excessively served by the camera. What is far less obvious is where the line is drawn between pornography and the arty erotic picture. The Collins dictionary says pornographic pictures are designed 'to stimulate sexual excitement', and perhaps that is as good a definition as you will get. The art image, no matter how explicit or provocative, has a different slant: that of being enjoyed or possessed for itself. Great living masters such as Jan Saudek have never been concerned with avoiding the overt and the explicit, yet I doubt if any of his work would generate sexual excitement. I expect many would be shocked, not turned on. Those who are shocked might call erotic photography 'pornographic', even if it doesn't excite sexually. Into the debate today come those dreaded two words - political correctness. Politically correct persons often view erotic photography as exploitation, primarily of women. With the ever increasing number of women photographers producing both challenging and highly sexual and erotic pictures for the creative end of the market (such as Grace Lau, Delia Grace and Heidi Kaa), this stereotype of the male exploitive photographer is quickly being broken down. Even the top shelf world is becoming more and more dominated by female photographers. Equally, as a balance, the naked male is dangling more often on the pages of porn magazines.

What is true is that pornography is an honest use of the camera. If it is imaginatively executed, the dividing line between art and pornography becomes very blurred, and in the end confuses all of us. If it hangs on the wall of a gallery, it becomes art; if the picture is in a magazine and dragged from underneath the counter, then it is pornography. So the package and the price tag move the goalposts.

Photographers like Bob Carlos Clarke, Man Ray, Bailey and many more have smeared Vaseline on our judgement by producing pictures that have complex fashion and sexual messages. Sex sells. From fast cars to champagne, adverts have never been slow to exploit the soft core image.

It's not just the explicit that provokes our senses - showing all can be about as exciting as a medical textbook. If an image teases and titillates, it can be positively pornographic (judged by its strict meaning). The September 1994 issue of Vogue tempted not only our sensibilities but perhaps the law by showing a topless and well-spread model being stretched upon a rack. Advertising images can be as near to the knuckle as you can get, but somehow manage to escape censure.
I'm always concerned how standards drop along with knickers. If you want excellent pornography or fine art erotica, both need a great deal of skill and imagination. The choice of medium is important. It's more difficult to produce serious work in colour. Use of black and white helps us to step back from both the glamour and the pornographic image. I can remember when all pornography was in black and white, but the explosion of colour has changed our perception. Now, b&w work is collected and exhibited often as art, history changing the monetary and creative valuation placed upon it.

Before picking up the camera it is worth knowing what role your intended piece will play - pornography, art or glamour. Whatever the classification, to be 'good' it must produce the desired effect upon those who see the picture. Thrusting and busty might suit the glamour market; explicit scenes and a moody feel might suit the art crowd, as long as it's beautifully toned and printed; and a pair of fabulous 'bedroom eyes' might make your picture positively pornographic. To be described as 'good' is an exciting challenge for any photographer. Getting a person to understand what you are seeing is always a problem.

Even if you want to be the calm professional, a part of your mind must know and have already evaluated the rules that control erotic pictures. People are personalities and this must burst through, whatever category your pictures reside in, otherwise it will die in the camera.

Those who gaze upon your work must 'want' what it contains. To succeed, porn or art must be seen as a box of expensive chocolates - tied with red ribbon waiting to be unwrapped by the private parts of our wicked minds.

First published in the UK magazine 'Amateur Photographer' July 1st 1995

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