It may come as a surprise to some readers that our infatuation with the female nude photograph predates Playboy by two decades. In fact I can think of two sexual trailblazers from the 1920’s, Louise Brooks and Josephine Baker. To pose completely nude for a photograph was considered more of an artistic endeavor in those days, and this is the spirit in which both Brooks and Baker approach it. Louise Brooks (to the left) strikes a pose which could be found in innumerable art deco sculptures. I have written before of Louise Brooks as an actress, but it is not as commonly known that she was showing her pubic hair long before Betty Page. I would say that Louise is very much the siren of the sexual revolution in her feminism before feminism existed. Of course I cannot be certain of her motives in posing for these photographs. Perhaps she needed money, but I would like to think she was striking a blow for female freedom. Her body isn’t an airbrushed sex doll, but rather a real body, like you would find in real life. I find this to be much more erotic than a nude body commercialized into a commodity.
However, Louise Brooks was not alone. Besides many lesser known models, the twenties and thirties had another sexual pioneer, Josephine Baker. Josephine projects an innocent vulnerability, and I admit to mixed feelings about her nudity. At that time African-Americans were often considered subhuman by white culture. I wonder if Josephine, particularly in her banana dance, articulates the racist jungle girl fantasies of a white audience. Even if that is so, and I suspect it is, Josephine Baker exuded a sensuality which still resonates today. She seems comfortable in her own body, projecting an unashamed innocent sexuality.
I suspect these photos provided quite a thrill for many young men, who could not believe what they were seeing. Unlike today, when the internet is inundated with nudity, in those times the sight of a pubis was undoubtedly very exciting. It is possible that Hugh Hefner may have been one of those young men, longing for a time when he could take such pictures.
For Louise Brooks and Josephine Baker, to be nude was to be honest, to be real, to be themselves stripped of all pretensions. At least, that is what I would prefer to believe.