Views & Reviews: Peek: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute

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Views & Reviews        

The Good Book

When I was growing up in suburbia, my friend had the most wonderful woman living at her house, working as a housekeeper and nanny. This woman was young but seemed older and sophisticated to us. Unlike our parents, she knew how bad we were, and she doted on us. She told us stories of sex and romance, which were insanely exotic to our sphere of experience, and she showed us this deck of playing cards, the backs of which were out-of-focus, black-and-white photographs of people fucking and kissing and using their mouths for sexual pleasure. We gaped at these cards for hours, and would do grueling and boring chores for Drucilla in exchange for chances to see them again and again. They were Biblical in their atavism and mystery, and we barely understood them. But something about these blurry, underground, desperate photographs, taken with primitive equipment and shot in great haste, rang true through all the corridors of our untried, twelve-year-old bodies.


That’s the truth I’m reacquainted with as I browse the lush, slow photographic imagery in Peek, a new collection of erotic photographs culled from some seventy-five thousand pieces collected by the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. Alfred C. Kinsey, professor of biology at

Indiana University and author of the explosive best-sellers Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), altered American culture by offering it a look at itself behind the closed doors of its own heteronormative, Leave It To Beaver sexual self-image. Such revelations as the fact that 37 percent of all men surveyed admitted to having had post-adolescent homosexual encounters culminating in orgasm, or that almost 50 percent of women interviewed acknowledged having had premarital sex, were the precursors to sexuality becoming a part of the public discourse in a quotidian sense.


Before I tell you how gorgeous some of these photographs seem to me, encompassing images across a properly wide spectrum in time (late nineteenth century to the present) and in texture (from the most tenderly amateur to the most crassly commercial), I have to confess that I did not understand at the outset what “dirty pictures” could have to do with sexual research. It reminded me of the way the cops keep tempting bags of cocaine and heroine around

the precinct “as evidence.” It helped me to be reminded, in an illuminating essay on the collection written by Jennifer Pearson Yamashiro, that Kinsey was first and foremost an entomologist, a scientist of bugs, whose extensive photographs of gall wasps preceded his writing a word about them, and provided the basis of his thinking about them. Kinsey was working at a time when the belief in a clean line between subjectivity and objectivity was as intact as a hymen, and that way of thinking, in its way so innocent, provide the basis for Kinsey’s faith in the viability of these photographs as, pardon the expression, hard data about the sexual culture in which they were taken.


He referred to them as data, but to me they are templates of experience. Start with the cover. It’s an untitled photograph circa 1935 of a woman with dark hair, her throat exposed fully as if to the hand of an attacker or lover in the uptilt of her chin, one shoulder of her black robe pulled down, her bra yanked

low and crumpled as a dinner napkin and a black frame held around her beautiful breasts by her own hands, as if in passionate complicity with her own objectification. I don’t know what this photograph says about American sexual practices, but it articulates a crude and enduring hunger for visions of the female body.


Many of the photographs in Peek were taken from private, amateur photo albums of unnamed individuals, images made for their personal pleasure. The taking of such photos was an indulgence made possible by the sudden accessibility of photographic processes in the 1930s, which enabled individuals to take and process their own explicit pictures, avoiding censorship or trouble with the law. Occasionally, text accompanies these images. A particularly touching example of this personal photography is a pair of explicit photographs on opposing pages of the book, each labeled, by hand: June 1936. On the left is an image of a man’s torso. He is seated on a patch of dark ground in front of some thistles and grass. His legs are spread wide, and the photograph captures only his chest, genitals and widely splayed upper thighs. He is faceless. His penis is fully erect, and tilts gently to the viewer’s right; looking at it, I could not help

imagining how familiar this canting cock was to some fond wife or lover, now old or dead. Hand-written text above the image reads: “Close-up of a Leaning Tower.”


On the right is the matching female photograph. Instead of sitting up, the woman is supine on the same patch of neighborhood grass. There is something sensuously tormented about her physical attitude. Her arms rise up above her face, farthest from the camera, to shield her identity, but the contours of her chin and cheeks are visible. Her breasts rise out of her chest and, moving towards the camera, her waist precedes her thighs, spread high in a “V.” Her vagina is in the dead center of the photograph, shrouded in hair and some kind of shame, fully open and somehow tragic. Text above this photograph reads: “A virgin loveland except for being seen, kissed, + touched by the hand of her lover. Would that she had let me lie on it.”


There is a large collection of homoerotic photos in this handsome book, many of which are attributed to George Platt Lynes, a commercial photographer

with an enduring interest in the male nude. His photos are varied and compelling; his professional knowledge of the photographer’s tools contrast delightfully with the more amateur work included in the collection. There is a lovely shot of his in which a young, virile man sleeps in a hammock. The hammock sweeps across the photograph like a single capital letter “U.” On his stomach, the man’s eyes are closed, his beautiful head clean-shaven, his well-shaped flanks and buttock gently limned. The lighting is perfect, the composition full of softness and a stillness that implies sweeping motion. Another Lynes composition is of a man’s body from just below the navel to the beginning of upper thighs. The photo fully and centrally depicts the man’s penis, circumcised and soft, quiescent between his thighs. The true intrigue is in the man’s hands, which are beautifully shaped and placed on either side of the cock like ominous, impatient parentheses. This man’s immediate future is contained in the picture; I do not imagine this penis flaccid for much longer.


Turning from this two-page spread, the very next two pages feature two amateur efforts, spread way apart in time and intention, testament to this book’s delicious diversity, and effective defenses of Kinsey’s claim that the photographic image is a source of human information. On the left hand page, a man is miraculously suspended over a woman, his huge, erect phallus ramming into her mouth. It is awkward, ugly, truthful and simple: this is what we do! On the right side is a collection of twelve mounted photos entitled: “La Lune a 1 metre.”


This sepia-toned collection is a visual pun on “mooning,” the act of showing your ass to whoever’s looking. They all show ass or genitalia
centered in the frame, but several of them literally have frames, the frames of mirrors, and in those mirror shots, the male genitals actually

look like the face one can see when staring at full moon. It’s always the same face we see in the moon, we’ve seen this face for years and years, and this photographer arranged penises to look like noses, and the eyes and mouth are a blanket above and carpet below.


This book has some very arousing and delicious photographs, but it also relaxes me in two ways: firstly, it reminds me anything I do or desire has been
photographed, desired already; that my desire precedes me and lives after me. Secondly, because these images were collected for purposes of gathering “information” about human sexuality, Kinsey’s collection of photographs demonstrates visually the emptiness of the dispute over what is erotica and what is pornography, and we have in this volume a long non-polemic look at the way we look at the body.


When my kids grow up, this thing’ll live on my coffee table.

Photographs (c) 2000 Arena Editions. From Peek: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute.

Chat with former Kinsey Institute curator Jennifer Pearson Yamashiro on November 2 at 4 p.m. at

Deb Margolin and, Inc.