It's easy to see why the Museum of Sex tapped Jennifer Kabat to curate their latest hot exhibit, Vamps & Virgins: The Evolution of American Pinup Photography 1860 - 1960. The accomplished consultant, writer and editor for publications such as ID, The Face and Arena has a long-standing interest in racy images, and was thrilled to get her hands on the voluminous collection of Victorian erotica available to her for the show. Culled exclusively from long-time collector Mark Rotenberg's exhaustive array of over 100,000 photographs, postcards, films, magazines and art (which have been featured in three books by noted art publisher Taschen), the exhibit features all manner of saucy ladies in everything from fishnets to fetish wear to nothing at all, and chronicles the evolution of the genre. Visitors may be surprised to find that there really isn't anything new under the sun when it comes to baring it all, and that women were getting naked (and sexing it up) on camera long before the days of hardcore porn.
Kabatand, who has several art history degrees and has curated exhibits for Nike, Motorola, and the Whitney Museum, walks viewers through this racy past with an eye for the political, cultural and social changes that informed pinup imagery.
When did you first become interested in pinups?
I'd always been interested in erotica since I was a little kid, of course then because it was titillating but I really started thinking about them when I was studying art history at Barnard and then in the PhD program there at Columbia getting my MA. I was interested in looking at sexually explicit images, pinups and porn films and what they said about our culture. I thought that for someone with a feminist bent they were a vast un-mined territory. I even wrote some things about them at the time looking at things like the evolution of stripping (called of course in academese "the evolution of the erotic spectacle") in late 19th century France. I was interested in how it dovetailed with the development of industrialization and construction of leisure time in the end of the 19th century. Basically the answer is I was and am fascinated by that sort of material (not the big words but the erotic material), and as a woman I always want to understand it, what it is, what it means, how it works. I guess I have always been interested in trying to understand how men see erotica and trying to uncover that point of view. Plus, I enjoy it.
The artwork in the show is all owned by the same collector, Mark Rotenberg. How did he amass his collection and how did you two meet?
He started collecting in the late 70s. A neighbor of his in Brooklyn died and the city cleaned out the brownstone. They started throwing out and filling up dumpsters with all sorts of paper collectibles. There were rare artists prints by everyone from the Cruikshanks to Russian Constructivists-- and lots and lots of erotica from the 19th century to the present. That kicked off Mark's collection. He spent the next couple years researching his find and now he makes his living as a collector, selling his off his seconds and editing and creating books from his collection. His is one of the best private collections of erotica from the late 19th to the mid- 20th century. He recognized that erotica and pinups were a disappearing art, in danger of ending up in trash bins as his neighbor's had done so he started advertising in small local papers seeing if people wanted to sell their collections. He's ended up meeting people in food courts at malls, in the parking lot of McDonalds and other odd-seeming places in the pursuit of his collection. He has great stories about nephews of priests hurrying to get rid of their uncle's collections and other such things. We met when the museum introduced us with the aim of my curating the show.
Why did you choose the years 1860-1960? What’s significant about them and how did pinup photography get started?
1860-1960 represent the 100 years that established the look and feel of classic pinup photography. The Victorians started pinup photography, shooting actresses and ballet dancers (already considered loose women) in provocative poses. The Victorians also shot a great deal of hardcore photography which created our visual vocabulary for erotica. They were the ones who came up with the muff shot-- they were hardly prudes, those Victorians. The show then traces the evolution of American pinups through each era, seeing how each era used them and shaped them to fit what was going on culturally at the time. For instance in the 40s they were part of the War effort, while in the 50s the visual language of pinups changed and they helped strap down women's place in culture again. While they were explicit, the photos had the same effect as the Leave it to Beaver culture of disempowering women because the women look so coy and cute and powerless in the images. (then again there was also emergent S&M photography ala Irving Klaw and Bettie Page). The show ends with the 60s, with the end of cheesecake and the move towards the more explicit, gynecological centerfolds which in fact take us back to the muff shots that the Victorians had created, but without the camp, coy expressions featured in the late 19th century hardcore.
What’s the main way that the types of images and what they signify changed over that period? I was surprised to see that some of the early images were in fact quite racy.
Yes the early images were quite racy. In fact surprisingly so. To see these Victorian images of people really going at it is a big shock. And then the outfits, the big hats that they keep on while shagging even! That sort of imagery disappeared from the mainstream in the early 20th century --and while hardcore imagery always existed, it didn't resurface in the mainstream until the early 60s.
Images changed with each era. For instance in the 20s which could be called the first sexual revolution where women were rejecting Victorian sexual mores and women across the board were embracing their sexuality (working and middle class girls as flappers and feminists seeing sexual freedom as part of liberation), pinups became much more frank and direct. Instead of models looking as if they'd been caught out or spied on, they directly addressed the camera. In the mid to late 30s the aesthetic switched back again and in the 40s another era of sexual liberation for women, women started seeing themselves as pinups--as part of the war effort and "for the boys". Thus they even sent homemade cheesecake style photos of themselves to their boyfriends at the front where they'd be hiking up their skirt. In the 50s while sexual imagery exploded, the role women played in that imagery largely reinforced an image of a diminutive powerless woman-- posed with toys and camp props. But also during the late 40s and early 50s S&M images really came to the fore. Some of Bettie Page's most famous images feature her wielding a whip and a girlish grin.
Each era really found a place for the pinup in their specific cultural moment. It was only with the mid 60s that the visual aesthetic radically changed towards the contemporary centerfold though.
I especially enjoyed the 3-D images in the exhibit, and throughout noticed how playful and teasing most of the pinups are, as if the models are in on the joke, rather than just being objects, they seem to be participating in their own image-making. Who were these models and how did they get involved? Were they "bad girls" or outlaws and was this type of modeling looked down upon?
It's hard to know who specifically these women were. Most of them were anonymous models hired by camera clubs to pose for their members. Camera clubs would get together on the weekends, find a location, hire some models and shoot them naked. Really the hallmark of all 50s imagery is that camp, coy, cute look, and it took Playboy to change it. To typify the models as bad girls or outlaws is impossible, as so little is known about the majority of the models. Though of course there are some exceptions, like Betty White former star of the sitcom Golden Girls who got her start as a pinup model. Many of the women like White and Betty Page were actresses looking for their break.
That question leads me to my next one – over the course of the century your exhibit covers, who was the main audience for pinup photography, and was it related to class, race and gender?
Men. And at that mostly white men were the intended audience. Very early Victorian dageurotypes were prohibitively expensive and thus sold to the very rich, after that photographic technology became increasingly accessible to the masses. Photos became cheaper and it was easier to buy, sell and trade the images. Originally French postcards were primarily the preserve of the rich in this country. They were the ones doing the Grand Tour of Europe who had access to the cards and could bring them home. By early in the 20th Century though, catalogues were making the images available to all. You no longer had to go to Europe to get them. With World War I the French postcards exploded. Soldiers brought them home from the front. Of course in the 20s with-it women would consume pinups and erotica as a display of their sexual openness.
Bettie Page is held up as the classic pinup girl, and she was most popular in the 1950’s, when the public image was of happy (white) families and perfect homes, yet she did photos that were quite risque for her time. How is pinup or other erotic imagery related to what’s going on culturally in the world at any given time? Does it mirror it or is it a "secret" or "dark" side of it?
I would say while it might be underground, it never happens outside the purview of the culture. Erotica is always part of the larger culture that creates it, even if made in a reaction to that culture, and in that way it will always reflect issues in the dominant culture. While in the 50s the dominant image was woman as homemaker baking pies and wearing pearls, 50s erotic imagery often pictured women who were passive, but then of course there were the bondage and S&M images, which you could say are the exception that proved the rule. That sort of imagery developed just after the war, and Irving Klaw is the one who created it, and I think it says a great deal about the larger culture being hungry for images of very passive women tied up or wielding whips and play-acting at power while in fact women had less power than they'd had for decades.
What’s the difference between pinups and pornography?
Pinups are generally a bit more soft core, less risque. I think there is always a fine line when you're talking about sexually explicit material, though.
You worked as an editor at the British men’s magazine Arena, so I thought you might have some insight into whether the types of images in the exhibit were images precursors to modern day images of women in popular culture?
Playboy. Playboy really set the template for the style of imagery we see now. It broke the mold of cheesecake and started to create narrative shoots where the reader could put himself in the frame with the viewer and that is really the style of pinups and centerfolds we get now. In fact it was Russ Meyer who did that specific shoot for Playboy (he was photographing his wife at the time even) where he photographed her before an open fire as if she were waiting for the reader to come join her.
You split your time between New York and London, so I’m curious about the differing attitudes toward sexuality in the two cities. Is one city more open-minded, or are they both at the same level?
Oh I think London is by far. Despite the US's Sex and the City culture, I think there is a lot more frankness and less giggly fear in thinking and talking about sexuality here in the UK, which is perhaps a bit surprising. It also helps that we don't have a government here that wants to crack down on all explicit or supposedly explicit imagery.
I think most readers probably know at least something about pinups, but what can you tell them that might surprise them?
Definitely that they got their start from hardcore images as well as more tame photos and illustrations of actresses and dancers. And then that so many of the images from the 50s the women all had the same facial expression this big old "ooh" with their lips in an O. It's pretty funny when after looking at hundreds of images you start to see them. I mean countless women making the same expression. And what exactly does Ooh mean? Is it "oops you caught me off guard while I was dressing/undressing"? Is it "ooh that's racy"? Is it "ooh this look is really sexy?" Seriously I often wonder what was going through the models' minds while they were doing this. Because so little is known about the women, because they are so anonymous, I really wonder who they are and what they would have to say about the images. That's why I felt it was really important to put them in a cultural context.
Moving forward forty years, is there pinup photography being made now, and if so, how does it compare to the older work? It seems like there are at least several subcultures, such as rockabilly, that are looking to emulate 1950’s looks and culture.
Of course there is. Which is great, much of it is a sort of punk take on pinup photography where those third (or is it now fourth that we're on?) generation feminists re-appropriate the pinup language and turn it on its head. Because pinups have so much cultural power, like there are certain sets of poses that read as "pinup" to see people playing with them is great. Even Louis Vuitton's autumn campaign this year with Christina Ricci and Chloe Sevigny takes the Vamping Hollywood siren as its starting point. And pinups seem to be having a new audience with that bar in Williamsburg, Tainted Lady, and also Mary Haron (who made American Psycho) directing a biopic on Bettie Page.
What are you working on next?
I'm thinking about 70s porn flicks and trying to revise my novel. One venture needless to say is going better than the other. You can guess which.
Vamps & Virgins: The Evolution of American Pinup Photography 1860-1960 runs through March 2005 at the Museum of Sex, located at 233 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Interview by Rachel Kramer Bussel