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The Internet History Podcast claims:

When photography was developed in the 18th century, photographic commerce was mostly about selling people portraits of themselves or their loved ones—at least, initially. What really kicked off an industry for photographs was the marketing of pictures of other people… in the nude.

Is there any evidence showing that the last statement is true?

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As written, I'd call this mostly false.

There are 3 main forces that contributed to the demand for early photos:

  • Famous people recorded for posterity
  • Families documenting themselves.
  • Newspapers documenting events.

Insider.com have compiled what they believe is the oldest surviving photo in each US state. It's a whole bunch of famous peoples portaits, monuments, military structures, and landscapes. There is no porn in that list.

Wikipedia's page on the history of photography also includes no mention of nudity in early photography. They have a section on the popularisation which does not mention nudity. The need to document the world, and preserve ones own legacy, outweighed the desire to see photos of naked women.

The Museum of Sex in New York has half a floor dedicated to the history of porn. There are indeed nudes in their collection dating from the early 19th century, however photos in the early 19th century were difficult to reproduce. One photo session, one photo. And if you were close enough to a woman to get a nude photo of her, you could probably see her nude again at a later point, so there was no need to record it.

Pornography was sold, but it was very expensive, to have a porn collection, you needed to be very wealthy. Charles de Morny, Duke of Morny had a large pornographic photo collection in 1850 which he displayed at large gatherings.


However with one minor edit to your quote I can make it partially true. If I change "an industry for photographs" to "a demand for copies of photographs" then the statement is only true for the photography industry in Paris, I don't believe it to be true anywhere else.

The trace of truth in this is the 1860's porn sellers in Paris. after the calotype process was invented (allowing negatives to allow mass production), there was a boom in porn retailing:

In 1848 only thirteen photography studios existed in Paris; by 1860, there were over 400. Most of them profited by selling illicit pornography to the masses who could now afford it. The pictures were also sold near train stations, by travelling salesmen and women in the streets who hid them under their dresses. They were often produced in sets (of four, eight or twelve), and exported internationally, mainly to England and the United States. Both the models and the photographers were commonly from the working class, and the artistic model excuse was increasingly hard to use. By 1855, no more photographic nudes were being registered as académie, and the business had gone underground to escape prosecution.

I'm not aware of this happening anywhere else in the world at this time, and it definitely helped the French art, photogrpahy, and pornography scenes.

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    On the "oldest surviving photo": porn collections were considered scandalous and were routinely destroyed by shocked relatives after the death of the collector. Hence surviving porn is much rarer than it was at the time. – Paul Johnson Sep 20 at 14:34
  • @PaulJohnson: Do you have a citation for that? – Oddthinking Sep 20 at 15:33
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    @Oddthinking Unfortunately not. I heard it from a BBC expert on "The Antiques Roadshow" many years ago when someone bought in an antique porn collection. – Paul Johnson Sep 20 at 16:16

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