Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Audience in the Palace Theater c1943

Weegee (Arthur Fellig)
Audience in the Palace Theater c1943
© Weegee / International Center of Photography / Getty Images

Sexual or erotic images have been made throughout the history of photography. This section includes photographs that gaze openly at willing subjects as well as those depicting illicit and intimate acts made without the knowledge or permission of their subjects. Many of these images seem to position the viewer in the role of a ‘peeping tom’. At the same time, they pose difficult questions about who was looking and why, when the picture was made, and whether we should collude with, or reject, this point of view. 

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The fine line between art and eroticism was already present in the 1850s. Louis-Camille D’Olivier’s photographs of female nudes were intended as exemplary images for art students to draw from, but they soon acquired a secondary value as images of erotic contemplation for their mostly male audience. 

In the twentieth century, this ambiguity was particularly associated with fashion photography, exemplified here by the work of Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. Newton’s Self-Portrait with Wife June and Models offers a master-class in fetishistic looking, complicating the play of gazes by a complex interior space within which his wife June occupies a prominent position. 

In contrast to Newton’s polished images, the photographs of Miroslav Tichý preserve the frisson of their production through their grainy, home-made feel. An eccentric, marginal figure, Tichý stalked the streets and swimming baths of his home town in provincial Czechoslovakia with hand-made cameras that none of the local people believed were real. The results surprised and stunned their subjects when they were shown many years later, offering an unnerving and strangely poetic record of a life on the outskirts of society.

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The French pioneers of photography often supplemented their income by producing pornographic pictures printed on small stereo cards, which appeared as three-dimensional when viewed correctly. Respected artist and photographer Auguste Belloc used the false name ‘Billon’ when he created a series of stereoscopic prints showing women with their skirts raised and legs apart. His contemporary Felix-Jacques Moulin was sentenced to a month in prison after the discovery of his obscene photography. 

Surrealist photographer Jacques-André Boiffard’s photographs of women in sadistic leather masks are precursors to Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures of fetishistic dress and sexual acts. Out in the open, figures such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai and Weegee created images of lovers stealing intimate moments in public places. Data collected for the Kinsey Reports – a scientific study of sexual behaviour in post-war America – includes less skillful photographs of furtive couples.

Susan Meiselas described the strippers she photographed in the mid-1970s as ‘as close to a man’s world as you can be’. Following her lead, Merry Alpern surreptitiously photographed the comings and goings of a Wall Street brothel from a hideout across the street; while Cammie Toloui turned her gaze onto the audience whilst she worked as a stripper at the Lusty Lady Theatre in San Francisco.

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When first shown in 1979 at the Komai Gallery, Tokyo, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s series of photographs titled The Park were visible only by flashlight, as each visitor shone a torch over the pictures. As a young commercial photographer, Yoshiyuki uncovered a nocturnal phenomenon of Japanese park life. Whilst walking in Chuo Park in Shinjuku one night with a colleague, he noticed a couple on the ground, and then a number of men creeping towards them.  The men were trying to get close enough to touch the bodies on the ground without being noticed. Yoshiyuki participated in the voyeuristic ‘sport’ for several months before he started to document it using his 35 mm camera and an infrared flash bulb. ‘To photograph the voyeurs, I needed to be considered one of them’, he has said. ‘I behaved like I had the same interest as the voyeurs, but I was equipped with a small camera. My intention was to capture what happened in the parks, so I was not a real ‘voyeur’ like them. But I think, in a way, the act of taking photographs itself is voyeuristic somehow. So I may be a voyeur, because I am a photographer.’

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The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a slide show (recently transferred to digital format) made up of hundreds of photographs taken by photographer Nan Goldin over nearly three decades. It documents the intimate lives of her friends, lovers and those she came into contact with in the bar scenes of New York and Boston. ‘There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party’, Goldin has said. ‘But I’m not crashing, this is my party. This is my family, my history.’

The accompanying soundtrack includes songs by New York bands like The Velvet Underground, whose lyrics evoke themes explored within the photographs such as heterosexual and homosexual relationships, violence and addictive dependencies, domesticity and family roles, death and vulnerability. Picturing the photographer’s friends and trusting acquaintances, the slides seem to invite us into a world that is universally human yet highly specific. The title of the work is taken from a song in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.