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There's something sexy about a girl caught off guard. That's one of the reasons that my favorite pinup artist is Gil Elvgren. Many of his paintings from the '40s, '50s, and '60s feature a woman doing an ordinary taskbarbecuing, watering the lawn, shoppingwhen all of a sudden, her skirt is pulled up, revealing stockings and garters, and maybe offering a peek at panties. The woman looks shocked but never horrified, and there is always a bit of smile in the O of her perfectly painted lips. The scenes are charming and campy; that the artist had to create the pretense of why we're suddenly seeing up some girl's skirt is, well, sweet. It's simultaneously voyeuristic and innocent, since the setup implies that as a viewer, I just saw something I wasn't supposed to. Except for an occasional look at bare breasts, there's very little nudity. Yet Elvgren's images are really sexy to me, in spite of and because of their old-fashioned naughtiness.
Hester Nash knows plenty about nooky from the past. She curates retroraunch.com, one of the largest collections of vintage porn on the Web. Launched in 1997, the membership site features over 43,000 images (mostly photography) from the 19th century to the 1970s. Nash began buying erotic photos from antique dealers, scanning the images, and organizing them by decade. As the site's membership and popularity grew, collectors sent her digital files of images from their personal collections. Even regular folks who had "stumbled" upon old erotica (who knew that Grandpa was such a perv?) sent it to her to share with the world. Because she features only images that are in the public domain or uncopyrighted, you won't see spreads from old issues of Playboy. You will, however, see an amazing array of naked men and women posing or doing the nasty through the decades.
Nearly unintentionally, Nash, now 47, has become an erotic-photography historian. She says it's easy for her to date a photo simply by the quality of the lighting and telltale signs like hairstyles, makeup, and furniture. It's fascinating to spend hours combing through this enormous X-rated scrapbook and seeing how our views of sexuality have changed. The photography on retroraunch.com seems more natural and less self-conscious than modern-day dirty pictures. It's not just the abundance of pubic hair on both men and women, the presence of soft or only semi-hard cocks, and the imperfect (and of course, not surgically enhanced) bodies, but in the hardcore shots, the people look like they are actually doing it, not just performing doing it. Lest you think that old porn was kinder, gentler, or more innocent, I saw plenty of titty fucking, anal sex, orgies, strap-ons, cocks buried balls-deep in asses, and some strange shots with a stuffed poodle on a leash. I even saw a standing 69 position just like one I admired Audrey Hollander and Otto Bauer for doing in the current issue of Hustler's Taboo. Says Nash, "Almost all the standard fetishes date back to when photography starts."
According to Nash, retroraunch.com has "thousands" of members, which isn't surprising, since our appetite for all things retro has grown tremendously in recent years; the return of pinup photography, the popularity of retro fashion and aesthetics, and the resurgence of burlesque and striptease performance throughout the country prove that we're hooked on sexual nostalgia. There is also a growing movement of artists who are not just paying homage to retro sexuality, but taking the opportunity to reimagine the aesthetics, like Dita Von Teese (a modern-day Bettie Page) and photographers like Dave Naz, whose work includes old-school cheesecake photos of punk-rock girls. We appreciate the self-aware campiness of retro art and performance; it has a wink-wink in there that says it knows it's naughty-pretending-to-be-nice, and can you, the viewer, just play along? There is also an undeniable playfulness and joy in much of the sexual imagery of the past (Nash says this is especially apparent in photos from the '20s, '30s, and '60s), a sometimes uninhibited giddiness of "Ooh, look, we're fucking!" I think that in a lot of current porn, that simple joy has been replaced by the uninhibited yet empty exhibitionism of "Look at me, I can take on five guys at once and still smile sort of."
"What had been amusing to me," says Nash, "is how much the bar keeps getting raised, and how much ruder, louder, and more obnoxious people have gotten to get your attention." She has only just recently begun studying porn from the current decade for a new monthly porn-website review segment she hosts on The Derek and Romaine Show on Sirius Satellite Radio. The contrast between the material from the past she looks at all day and what's out there now is striking. "We certainly have explored the outer reaches of madness," she says. "Every hole is turned inside out, we're seeing people's internal organs. It's all so over-the-top." Nash thinks that we are headed toward dialing it back.
It's true: We do not live in a time of subtlety. Our bang-'em-over-the-head mentality extends to all areas of life, including sexuality. Once we've seen 100-person gang bangs or two cocks in someone's ass at the same time or a baseball bat up someone's pussy, really, where is there to go? Can porn get more outrageous, more circus-like, more limit pushing? Legally, there are probably few things left to explore that won't get someone charged with obscenity, especially under this administration. Just last week, Max Hardcore's offices were raided by the feds, and copies of several of his recent movies were seized for possible prosecution.