About twenty years ago, a guy named Mark Lee Rotenberg found himself pawing through a dumpster in his Brooklyn Heights neighborhood that was overflowing with junk being chucked out of a nearby apartment. Amidst the discards, Rotenberg discovered an impressive pile of vintage girlie magazines, and, as he plowed through Civil Warera newspapers and other century-old curiosities over the next few days, he eventually happened upon a mother lode of the kind of stuff that Great-Grandpa might have once stashed away in the bottom drawer: a cache of fifteen hundred erotic photographs dating back to the 1870s.
This initial random encounter with antique smut put Rotenberg on a twenty-year collecting binge his present collection of dirty pictures now numbers around a hundred thousand and has led to the publication of The Rotenberg Collection: Forbidden Erotica (Taschen), a five-hundred-page tome dedicated to the long-forgotten erotica of the gaslight era that culls the best of Rotenberg’s whopping and surprisingly raw collection.
As a title, Forbidden Erotica is a major understatement. The Rotenberg photographs are not soft-focus cheesecake, and what they depict isn’t coy. The cover image gives it away in a hurry: a hale, mustachioed fellow delivering the goods to a zaftig lass whose facial expression conveys more of a sense of being vaguely perturbed than of ecstasy. Yes, this is hard-core pornography, the kind with no pretensions to art or social value or politeness; the kind that gets Andrea Dworkin (and Rudy Giuliani) into such a dither; the kind that has mushroomed into a ten-billion-dollar-a-year business over the past two decades, leaving guys like Larry Flynt to live off the table scraps; the kind that, according to a recent New York Times front-page story, even respectable companies like AT&T and Marriott now traffic in, much to the dismay of their more conservative stockholders; and the kind that has launched a zillion websites and, by extension, maybe helped propel the ever-surging growth of the Internet and its furious New Economy.
There isn’t much that you can download off the Web these days that you can’t find inside Forbidden Erotica, which covers the evolution of photographic raunch from the 1870s to the 1940s, with an emphasis on Victoriana. The menu includes straight intercourse and oral sex (which the Victorians called “gamahuching”) as well as orgies, sex toys, gay and lesbian scenarios, interracial themes, water sports, flagellation, bondage, corporal punishment, rape fantasies and a curious sub-genre that may well have vanished from the porno landscape: something that the author’s wife Laura Mirsky who provides a refreshingly unpretentious essay and interview with Rotenberg calls “human sausage,” in which a flaccid penis is elaborately laid out on a plate and presented to a woman who, knife and fork delicately poised, prepares to tuck into this bizarre phallic repast.
Rotenberg may have had human sausage in mind when he told Mirsky, “I defy anyone to look at this book and not have some sort of traceable reaction.” My own traceable reaction was to crack up, and, throughout Forbidden Erotica, there’s much to giggle, blush and wince at, but surprisingly little to get hot and bothered about. For once, intellectual curiosity actually manages to override the libido: I found myself leafing through this book which, by the way, isn’t the sort of thing you want to tote around on the subway thinking, “Whoa, they did this? And this?”
It’s somewhat of a revelation to realize that, when it comes to sex, there’s really nothing new under the flash: the French did not invent the blowjob during the Great War, John Holmes wasn’t the first guy to brandish his jumbo endowment at a camera and the sexual revolution, in some ways, wasn’t as revolutionary as we’d all figured. And those frocked and corseted Victorians weren’t nearly as repressed as we’ve always imagined them to be engaging, as they do in these pictures, in some of the most outré kinks imaginable.
As for the pictures themselves, they tend to be rather hilariously staged tableaux set against faded brocades or hastily painted backdrops. The men sometimes wear fake mustaches, perhaps to mask their identities or to add a little rakish charm. The women, meanwhile, wear glazed expressions or roll their eyes heavenward; they look like saucy parodies of saints in Renaissance paintings, an effect heightened by the fact that all the participants, men and women, are unnaturally frozen in their postures: you can imagine an anonymous photographer saying, “Now, remain perfectly still,” as a woman in yet another scullery-maid scenario attempts to stand on her head while a lothario in shirtsleeves goes down on her or as a robust wench uses a frighteningly large model of the Eiffel Tower for a dildo or as a jolly trio of girls done up like Little Bo Peep all pee on each other. The pee is a special effect seemingly created by scratching the negative.
It dawns on me that throughout Forbidden Erotica due to the technological limitations of the time, no doubt there’s a conspicuous absence of the image that, for better or worse, reigns supreme in modern pornography: the ubiquitous money shot.
If the Rotenberg collection’s bodies are more at rest than in motion, they are nonetheless stunning in their un-airbrushed variety. There’s no such thing here as the aerobicized, steroid-pumped, silicone-enhanced, meticulously tanned, hairless porn star of today. Rotenberg, not surprisingly, professes a strong preference for antique porn’s soft-bellied Don Juans and big-bottomed Jezebels (and for the genre’s abundance of “bloomers, rolled-up stockings and high-button boots”). The shadowy black-and-white and sepia tones also make these models seem more lifelike somehow: their skin doesn’t have the lurid fleshy glow of modern commercial smut, a hyper-real look that has become distressingly standard. Leafing through the Rotenberg collection made me realize that, for me and probably most people, reality has become an acquired taste, despite the popularity of “real amateurs” on the Web and in video stores. It makes you wonder what the pornographers of Forbidden Erotica would make of the stuff that’s out there today. No doubt they’d be amazed by the omnipresence of the genre they created and its slick, speedy intensity the one-click, fiber-optic velocity relentlessly targeting the lowest-common-denominator centers of erotic response. By comparison the Rotenberg collection is like a locomotive: it might eventually get to the same place, but the ride is bumpier.
Nevertheless, one aspect of high-tech porn might actually seem oddly familiar to yesteryear’s smut peddlers: the way the Internet functions like the bottom drawer of old, allowing for the secretive distribution of homegrown material sold by individuals (and sometimes even the models themselves) rather than conglomerates or a certain seventy-year-old millionaire lounging around a kidney-shaped pool in silk pajamas. (Rotenberg, by the way, sells material at his own modest site, vintagenudephotos.com.) If Internet porn promises a Tomorrowland of easy access and unprecedented privacy, it might also be more retro than we think.