Recently, my husband Ian, having noticed that I took to these stereograms as soon as they arrived, suggested I compose a few words on them, since I was struck by the beauty of these particular stereoviews. I’m not a stereography aficionado myself, but I do have to say that these amateur images struck me with their ageless beauty.
These images combine two of my interests, the first being early nude art photography/erotica/pornography where the women are simple, beautiful, and actually appear to be having fun. I also collect 1950s and 1960s Playboy for much the same reason (though I actually do read the articles!)* There is a lightness and joy to these images, of women enjoying their bodies and in these stereoviews — and unlike in a lot of the depictions of women’s bodies we see today — they appear very natural and free. And the photographer — whoever it was — reflects this beauty in a way that is almost innocent, unashamed, and nothing short of lovely.
Are these Weimar nudes pornography or art?
I wouldn’t even call this pornography, this is art — anonymous art, featuring anonymous women. But anyone who would seek to devalue it on the basis of their nudity is doing a great disservice to them; there’s really not much here that one would not see in Renaissance art, hung on the wall of the museum, given a place of pride. Men had profited from and paradoxically made women feel ashamed of their bodies since the beginning of time — to see the beauty of the female form treated as the work of art that it is, to see the subjects in such happy conditions, frankly is something that should be embraced.
The other interest I have to mention is the sadly short-lived era of decadence and freedom that was the Weimar Republic. It was a time of strife and pain, but like most times of strife and pain it was almost a time of great artist strides (one can’t help but think of the famous “Cuckoo Clock” speech from the great film The Third Man. Wells was speaking of the Renaissance but he could be speaking of multiple eras):
In Continental Europe, it was a time of great advances in art (one has to only look at the influence of German Expressionism on world cinema to see that). And yet it was a time that was far from peaceful. As Christopher Isherwood said in his masterful work The Berlin Stories: “Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon.”
And yet it was a time that produced these joyous images. The women in these photographs were most likely sex workers, as was common in art nude photography of this period. It was not something “respectable” women would ever take part in and, like sex work at the time, it was not heavily regulated (a large number of these early nude photographs feature women who may not be of today’s ages of consent in various regions, but who were considered fully mature adults in that time and place. It is really quite hard to tell when nothing about them has been documented). Their profession should not devalue them, however, just as their posing nude should not devalue them. They should be seen as beautiful pieces of expression, taken at a chaotic, artistically productive time.
The Coming Fall from Grace
I’ve always been drawn to eras of decay and madness, from the Fin de siècle and the Belle Époque (which really pioneered the use of the nude in art) to the Weimar Republic and the Roarin’ 20s of America. In these times, there is a great deal of uncertainty, an idea that nothing is going to be how it was, that something is ending and giving birth to an unknown. What actually came to Germany after the fall of the Weimar Republic was disastrous to say the least, tinging these images with almost a sense of melancholy. One wonders what happened to these women when Hitler came to power. Certainly there would be little chance to take such unabashed pride in the beauty that is their bodies.
On the gender of the photographer
From the stereographic perspective these images are quite striking. As I said we have no idea who the photographer is, but he (or maybe even she) has done a masterful job playing with the format, practically in the shot with giant frame and the use of negative parallax. The idea that it might have been a woman who shot these is not that far-fetched. Unlike the fine arts, photography doesn’t really have a history of shutting women out. Witness, for example, the career of Imogen Cunningham, a member of f/64. Born in 1883, Cunningham took nude photographs of both herself and her husband, the printmaker Roi Partridge. While the idea of a woman photographing a man nude caused some degree of controversy, Cunningham stated that it never harmed her career and she continued in taking art nudes throughout her life.
One can also look at the career of Bunny Yeager, former pin-up model turned photographer who took many of the early iconic images of Bettie Page. The idea that photographic nudes of women must exclusively have been shot by men is frankly ludicrous. And considering the freedoms of the Weimar age, the chance of a women being behind the lens here is not that unlikely. Look, for instance, at the lack of overt sexualization of the models, at their ease in front of the camera. The idea that this was an environment that felt safe to them comes forward in their expressions. One can see that in amateur nudes that were captured by lovers. One wonders if, here, they felt so comfortable because they were in a space that was controlled by another woman.
If I had the photographic acumen to create images such as these, I would love to do so. As I do not, I enjoy the beauty of works created by talented photographers – famous or nameless. But enough talk for now. Let’s enjoy some works of art!