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Before 1835 images of nude women generally consisted of drawings and paintings that were displayed on the walls of galleries and in private collections.
When the new technology of photography appeared it was quickly adopted by artists, anxious for new ways to depict the uncovered feminine form.
In the chaste climate of the 19th century the only officially accepted photography of the body was for the production of artist s studies.
However, many photographs were produced as erotic images for the discerning gentleman. There was a lot of money to be made by entrepreneurs of the day who sold these daring images to those who could afford them. (Forde, 2007)
The pictures were also trade by women in the streets who hid them under their dresses and near train stations by traveling salesmen. They were often created in sets and exported abroad, mainly to United States and England.
By 1855, the photographic nudes were no longer being registered as study material and the business had gone underground to escape prosecution. Therefore, the development of a reliable international postal system helped the erotic photography trade expansion.
In France and England the photographers often hired burlesque actresses as models for semi-nude and nude photographs. The French did a great trade selling erotic postcards to American tourists. These would now be called soft-core, but they were quite scandalous for that time.
Postcard and photography are mid nineteenth century inventions, and photography was used for postcards on a huge scale only about 1900. Millions of postcards from the first decades of the century attest to the great curiosity of Europeans, at home and abroad, regarding the colonies and its native inhabitants. (Corbey, 1988)
A very important category of these postcards is constituted by pictures of African women, revealing an erotic interest from the side of male, European spectators.
The Golden Age of the colonial postcards lies between 1900 and 1930 and the history knows of no other society in which women have been photographed on such a large scale to be presented to public view like the Algerians.
Many postcards supposedly displaying Algeria of that time are portraits of women in embroidered thematic vests, jewelled turbans and exorbitant beads. They were posing on carpets or divans with shackles on their feet and cigarettes in their hands.
Women in the photographs have no names. The postcards have impersonal captions like 'Woman from the South', 'Woman from the Maghreb', or 'Woman from Algiers'.
The Oriental women depicted in the postcards remain general. They are presented as a surface on which an image is projected. The models and the backgrounds were they were photographed, images of nature or harems, appear simplified in these studio photographs. (Alloula, 1986)
Algerian writer Malek Alloula (1986) shows evidence that the models used in these images are not actually real harem women. They are in fact orphans and prostitutes who were asked to pose for the photographer.
He identifies three main variants of postcards:
First, the artistic variant, involve that between the eyes and the breasts there be interposed some silk fabric leaving visible the curves of the chest. Covered by soft fabric, the woman is presented wearing her jewels, suggesting intimacy to which the viewer is invited.
The second variant is named as that of roguish distraction . What was only suggested in the artistic variant shows half-explicit here. One of the breasts, sometimes both takes advantage of an opening in the clothing to peek out. The ornaments and jewels are still present but only as setting in which nudity is displayed.
The third variant is the one of the display . The chest, at last freed from clothing is offering itself either with submissive humility or with arrogance. The accessories are inexistent or reduced to minimum. Most often the breasts are the only ornament in the image. This last version puts an end to any artistic reverie on part of the viewer.
Alloula fiercely condemns the voyeuristic approach on Algerian women. He explains the photographs did not represent the real Algerian women, but rather the Western fantasies of the Oriental female and her inaccessibility in the forbidden harem.
These postcards were sent as evidence of the exotic; they were war trophies. In terms of morality, a system of double standards was predominant: while photographs of naked French women in the mother country were strictly forbidden, it was acceptable for the women of the colonies to strip off.
A constructed mental image of the people from conquered countries had been forged back in Europe, homeland of the colonising power. Represented and believed to be primitive and naive, idealised through their perfect connection with nature, such peoples sparked curiosity for their exoticism and the sexualized portraiture of them.
Another example is the studio photography of Kanak women which served the purpose of arousing sexual fantasies and ideas among the viewers. As the genre wanted to create an authentic setting, the models were photographed surrounded by traditional artefacts staged, in their traditional grass skirts, but bare breasted. Those images were made in Noumea, at a time when urban Kanaks had already adopted European clothing. However, potential buyers were not interested in Kanak appropriation of western dress and habits or assimilation, but in difference. (Crane, 2004)
The partially clothed Kanak model became more of a stereotype and more within a studio setting, where reality was controlled. The photographer would undress their clothing, exposing their exotic bodies to the camera. The invented appearance of accessibility of these women intensified the voyeurism of the consumer.
Photography in New Caledonia indicates the dominant genres of that time: self-portraits for the rich, cartes-de-visite for the working classes and propaganda to promote a colonial possession. In the scientific world, Kanak portraits were not objective.
Also the postcards representing Polynesians are constructed on a foundation of gender subordination and racial belonging. They are perhaps some of the most significant of French colonial images in their seductive exotic beauty and uninhibited sexuality.
Photographs became one of the important sources of anthropologists for their case studies. Despite of the advantage, this photography business also created the tendency of the anthropologist themselves and photographers to manipulate their pictures and subjects creating stereotypes of human beings into the psyche of Western scientific groups by producing exotic, voyeuristic specimens as evidenced by the great number of postcards of nude native women. (Guardiola, 2007)
The photographers in the colonies built visions of exoticism which suited their own desires and those of the European viewers of these images. These nudes are visual narratives, telling a story of civilization and primitiveness, of European beliefs and fantasy.
Starting in the nineteenth century, then later reinforced in the 1950s through Western popular culture, particularly in movies and novels, the stigma of immorality has remained. Even today, tourism continues to portray the places like South Pacific as sites for romance and exotic adventure.