French Postcards

A contemporary Stanhope rosary from Michioacan, Mexico.
Looking through the lens embedded in the cross presents a view of the Virgin of Guadalupe levitating strangely within a hazy space.

A seizure in 1863 involved a type of photograph that was particularly adaptable to pornography—microphotography. These tiny images, sold as transparencies, were impossible to read with the naked eye and were packaged with special magnifying viewers (called Stanhopes). Numerous patents for microphotographic techniques were filed in 1861 (by Martinache for “microphotographs of jewelry”; Regad, “Prints for microscopes”1862 (Brin fréres; Nachet et fils) during the peak of interest in this novelty. Caught this time with “micro nudes” were Guth and Laufer, who were middlemen rather than photographers. Other firms that tried to register microphotographs with the Ministry of the Interior had similar problems getting their images approved. The list of “planches sans ou avec texts non autorisées” in 1862 included macroviews by Dagron et Compagnie entitled Surprised Bathers, La Joyeuse orgie, L’ Indiscret, Léda; Voland’s micro Enlévement de Psyche and Venus et Adonis; and Villeneuve’s Le Balancoire and Le Hamac (all photos of artworks, which represented another type of illegal image). Some of these works were marked “á la condiction expresse de ne pas mettre á l’étalage” or “pour l’export,” which suggests that they were conditionally approved.

Genreau, the lawyer prosecuting Guth and Lauger, distinguished between obscene and artistic nudes in his opinion on the case. Académies, he wrote were “female nudities in natural poses either standing or reclining,” whereas the works in question were “absolute nudes, exhibiting to the public in a very provocative manner objects that should be erased by art when not veiled by modesty.” There was nothing in common between art “with its allowable liberties, and photographs like those presented to the court. Art wasn’t merely a simple copy of nature but had to strive for the ideal. In his delimitation of “nudes for sculptors and painters not in indecent poses” and obscene works, Genreau telling attacked a “new philosophy that tries to rehabilitate the flesh.” The realist school (referring to the paintings of Courbet and his followers, like Manet, and the graphic writings of Baudelaire and Flaubert) substitutes for gracious Italian or Greek nymphs creatures of a hitherto unknown race of whom the banks of the Seine have kept a sad memory.” These new nudes, translated by photography, corrupted everyone, both the sellers and the young initiated thereby into debauchery.

. . .

Nude photographs were not only circulating through the provinces as in the cases of colporteurs and traveling salesmen but were flooding overseas markets. An 1864 case involving the photographer Bernard, who had exhibited microphotographs in the 1859 S.F.P. show, the toy merchant Dupont, and Kolbe, director of the photographic firm Lundquist et Compagie, exposed an international traffic in microphotographs, which wre sold in viewing tubes. In December 1863, Kolbe had received an order from Veracruz for eight dozen photographic tubes. After the order was shipped, Kolbe; Dupont his middleman, who was arrested with four dozen obscene microphotographs; and Bernard, who made the pictures, were brought before the Parisian criminal court on March 9, 1864. In spite of the defense’s argument that the photos were not sold in France and therefore were not subject to French copyright laws, the court condemned Bernard and Dupont to three months in prison and 100-franc fines and Kolbe to one month and the same fine. In this case, there had been verifiable commercial exchanges taking place in France. When the images were directly shipped overseas, however, the censors (and the police) often looked the other way. The “for export only” notation on the dépot légal registers reflect the double standard applied to commercial images, which resulted in France’s growing reputation as a source of “dirty pictures.” What is astonishing about the Kolbe affair is that it shows that obscene materials were infiltrating Latin America in the 1860s.

Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris 1848-1871, p. 160-162.