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In the second half of the nineteenth century, it cost more to buy an erotic photograph than it did to hire a prostitute. Partly this was because you get to keep a photograph for repeated viewing, while an actual sexual encounter is more fleeting. Unlike a prostitute, a picture could be stared at by its purchaser indefinitely, or put aside for another time. But there was an even greater draw. The products of this new technology, these images of real naked human beings, unmediated and raw, were like nothing that had ever existed before. They commanded a kind of fascination that fetched very generous fees.
The technology improved, with daguerreotypes swiftly being replaced by negative-positive processes that allowed for the mass production that could meet what seemed to be an insatiable market. Paris quickly became a global hub of photography in general, and erotic photography in particular. Pragmatically, it would have been impossible for it to be one without being the other.
In 1848, there were thirteen photography studios in Paris. Twenty years later, there were more than 350. Most survived by selling erotic images, though they were not officially labelled as such. Photographers took advantage of the cultural divide that had sprung up by that point, which separated nudity into either the acceptable category of art or the tawdry and taboo category of erotica. Tens of thousands of dirty pictures were sold as “art studies,” supposedly meant to be the basis for the great paintings of aspiring artists. (The practice extended into the twentieth century in forms such as gay erotica thinly disguised as athletic photography, and “documentary” portrayals of nudists.)
From the Hardcover edition.