New York

“The Explicit Image”

Ex Voto Gallery

While the debate rages about pornography—its definition, purpose, and social implications—artists continue to create a free zone in which graphic erotic imagery and art interface apart from sociological categorization. In no area are the issues more tangled than in photography; the technical capabilities of film have shifted erotic discourse away from literature, from the nuance of the written word to the bluntness of the visual image.

“The Explicit Image: an exhibition of 55 erotic photographs culled from the 3,500 images in the Vasta Images/Books collection, was a curatorial statement about pornography a recontextualization of erotic photography from Victorian times (ca. 1880) up to the swinging ’60s and the marketing of mass-produced hard-core pornography. Surprisingly, there was no attempt to define or even distinguish among the ”erotic’“ the ”pornographic," and the simply nude. Dominatrices and nudists, randy Victorians and free-loving Californians, hulking he-men and posturing femme fatales, fornicators and the merely exhibitionistic were displayed in a sequence determined principally by chronology. The photographers were, for the most part, anonymous.

This lack of a clear thematic thread took a certain hard edge off the show, since the ethical and conceptual questions of the moment seemed to be avoided. But by shunning any reductive didacticism, by choosing images from the past, by delineating a seemingly inclusive range of sexual acts and sexually charged situations, and by including photographic points of view from the mildly voyeuristic to the classically pornographic, masturbatory relationship between photographed subject and presumed viewer, “The Explicit Image” restored to a widely debased genre some of the libidinous freedom that ideally exists in erotic photography.

That freedom was underlined by the exhibition’s smorgasbord of represented erotic fetishes, using “fetish” in the sense of a complex that arouses, not a specialized sexual practice. Pre–sexual revolution or no, every possible variation seemed present. There was homoerotica; bondage (including a woman wrapped up like an enormous leather cigar); lesbianism; nudism (in an artless snapshot of four women eating watermelon in the sun); the taboo (a “monk” ministering to a black man sitting in a swing); women displaying their genitalia to the imaginary viewer; threesomes; and generic heterosexual couplings. Such anthologizing stirred up several varieties of critical, dialectical mind play, from gender mixing and matching to the contrasts between repetitious erotic cliches and the infinite variety of the human body

There was a corresponding catholicity of photographic technique. From the dulled brown and silver tones of the earliest prints to the garish Technicolor hues of ’50s snapshots and ’60s Polaroids, all of these now outdated (or vastly improved) photographic means added yet another legitimizing veneer of style to the presented subject matter. Apart from the implications of technique (why does black-and-white erotica always look “smuttier”—because it’s literally cheaper?), the technical variety in itself testified to the long-standing affair between photography and erotic imagery.

Without forcing its points, “The Explicit Image” succeeded in rescuing erotic photography from tendentious moralizing and restoring its esthetic dimension.

John Howell