Well this week we’ve had a bit of a moral panic over selfies of clothing challenged people, not in the least because a number of pictures of media starlets have been stolen from Apple iCloud servers, perhaps by brute force password attacks or perhaps not – time will tell.
A lot of the moral panic revolves around why people take and share photographs of themselves with less than the usual amount of clothing and shades into that other moral panic around sexting.
Without getting into the moral argument, lets just say that as long as photography has been around people have taken pictures of other people in the nude, whether for artistic, erotic, or just plain pornographic reasons. An image search for ‘nineteenth century nude photographs’ will bring up a fairly wide selection of images, albeit with some Edwardian images mixed in plus the inevitable leavening of contemporary pornography – in other words don’t try this in public or at work.
If you look at the images, you can see the whole history of photography laid out – in the 1860’s, when exposure times were long, and emulsions slow, the images tended to be of either reclining or posing nudes. It’s worth noting that the diarist Francis Kilvert on one of his trips to London goes to look at some photographs in a gallery ‘owned by a Frenchman suspected of selling obscene photographs’ towards the end of the 1860’s, suggesting that there was already a market for such images.
One, of course, always needs to take accounts of differing attitudes in differing times – Francis Kilvert, despite being a Church of England clergyman, enjoyed nude sea bathing and rails against resorts increasingly requiring gentlemen to wear cotton shorts for swimming, so it’s not necessarily the case that nude images were automatically viewed as obscene.
The other thing that is noticable about the early images, is just quite how many were of naked men – whether this is a result of the suppression of male homosexuality in Victorian times or contemporary preferences for digitising such images is an open question
Then, as film, and technology improves, including advances such as the cable release and the shutter delay one starts to get pictures which are more recognisable as what today we would call ‘selfies’.
And of course, as technology improved, it became cheaper, making it easier for people who were reasonably well off to take up photography as a hobby, and develop and print pictures at home. And as a consequence, from the mid 1880’s onwards they become more normal – private skinny dipping parties, amateur erotica and the like.
And as women started to be amateur and professional photographers in their own right one starts to get the occasional naked (female) self portrait.
So, we can say with some degree of confidence that as soon as technology allowed, those who could, did.
The difference between then and today was of course one of privacy. Intimate pictures would have to be developed and printed at home, which meant having the space to do it in, and the income to invest in equipment and chemicals and film. When I used to take a lot of black and white photographs in the seventies and eighties it was still a reasonably expensive business, even buying second hand tanks or getting access to the student photography club lab.
And for that reason the absolute number of such images was probably pretty low, printed at home, and kept securely locked in a folder in a filing cabinet.
What’s different today of course is that almost everyone in the developed world has a smartphone and can take pictures of their cat, their lunch, their partner showering, or whatever on a whim, and without complex processing, store their picture, quite often on a cloud based service, because after all it’s so easy to set you phone to backup your pictures, and of course the autobackup service does not know if it’s a picture of your cat, or something completely different.
And of course people choose insecure passwords, make mistakes on sharing permissions and the like, so it’s not in the least surprising that the odd private photograph gets out into the wild.
As for the moral panic – well for whatever reason, people have always seemed to want to do it. Why, I’m not sure, but my guess is it’s related to the urge to display, to stand out, to be attractive to the opposite sex, in the same way as some people seek to dress attractively or even provocatively to attract the attention of that special someone …