When Polaroid inventor Edwin Land introduced the first commercial instant camera to the market in 1948, he ushered in what Christopher Bonanos writing in The Atlantic calls a “magnificent new era” in photography—specifically, for “instant, shareable nudie pics.” The self-developing photograph’s sudden availability in bedrooms around the world came with the knowing wink that “whatever happened in front of the lens never needed to be seen by a lab technician.” Of course, amateur erotic photographers found ways to share the results with the world.
In his new history, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, Bonanos details how, post-Polaroid, friends would gather at "camera club" photography sessions to snap nude models in the privacy of their own homes; amateur sessions like those would eventually launch the legendary pin-up career of Bettie Page. Later, the under-the-radar format would empower Robert Mapplethorpe to play around with increasingly transgressive homoerotic images throughout the 1960s before introducing them to the art world. “If he'd sent some of those pictures of leathermen and naked boys out to a lab … he'd probably have been arrested,” Bonanos writes. But with his Polaroid, “everything stayed in his studio until he was ready to show it—and until, in the mid-1970s, the world (or at least part of it) was willing to see this work as art rather than smut.” And Polaroid didn’t shy from the medium’s erotic potential. The company always knew that the camera offered “a subject-photographer relationship that didn't exist with a regular camera,” Sam Yanes, a Polaroid spokesperson, told Bonanos. He calls it “intimacy.”
Magnificent? Intimate? Art? The new generation’s preferred format for taking private nude photographs—sexting—rarely inspires such vaulted language, although the mechanics are basically the same: instant explicit photographs, taken under the radar, shared between lovers and friends. In a recent report on a new study of teen sexting behavior, dating “expert” Dr. Wendy Walsh favored terms like “embarrassment,” “shame,” “risky,” and “pressure” to describe the photographic form. And negative terms like those permeate the modern discussion around teen photo sharing, though for years research has shown that the media-wide concern-trolling is overblown. As few as four percent of teens aged 12 to 17 have actually shot off explicit photos of themselves, just 15 percent have received one (presumably, some participants are just passing it on). And though the practice is framed in concern for the innocence of young girls alone—“sexting is giving up the goods before you even have the commitment from him,” Walsh preaches—boys and girls are actually equally likely to turn the camera on themselves.
The younger demographic’s engagement with erotic photography is not new—in 1965, Polaroid successfully marketed a new camera model to baby-boomer teenagers that it called “The Swinger” (tagline: “The most spontaneous camera in the world”). But though we look back on the Mapplethorpes of the Polaroid-era as artists, or even as quaint provocateurs, today, releasing your nude photographs to a wider audience is more likely to be deemed a shameful, slutty, and stupid thing to do.
It seems to me that today’s teenagers are caught in the same generational fear cycle that Mapplethorpe was. If one generation’s erotic material is considered erotic art, the next’s is dangerous smut. A variation on that theme: This week in Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory wrote about a father who discovered his 13-year-old son had been perusing internet porn on the family computer, then surveyed teen sexual health educators for appropriate parental responses. “Internet porn is generally way too much information about sex for a 13-year-old boy. He really doesn’t have the emotional or intellectual ability to make sense of what he’s viewing,” sex ed expert Amy Lang told Clark-Flory. Never mind that it is impossible to stop a teenager from accessing internet porn: Lang suggested the dad offer up some erotica from a bygone era in an attempt to get his kid’s mind off the more modern stuff. “She believes the days of sexual discovery via Playboy were healthier because still erotic images ‘engage their imagination,’” Clark-Flory wrote. “While she recommends banning young teens from porn-surfing, she’s not opposed to the idea of distracting them with a couple of old-fashioned girlie mags.”
Old-fashioned erotica isn’t just deemed as morally superior—it’s viewed as more aesthetically acceptable, too. Today, photographs taken on old-school Polaroid film (or at least mocked up as vintage through an Instagram filter) are considered more artistically relevant than the typical cell phone self-shot that have come to define the online dating profiles of the 21st century. But erotic cell phone photographs are not all bathroom backdrops and awkward angles; they can also lead the way to a new generation’s own artistic movement. After she was ridiculed for some recent weight gain, pop star Lady Gaga released self-shot photographs of herself in her underwear, paired them with commentary about her history with eating disorders, and shared it all with fans in an effort to encourage a more realistic dialogue around women’s bodies. That’s not necessarily revolutionary, but it’s a much healthier form of expression than scare-tactic peer-pressure stories about “sexting” would have you believe. “The self-shot has become the default profile pic,” Ann Friedman recently wrote in response to Lady Gaga’s pics. “The selfie says, I’m here alone. It says, Here’s how I want to present myself.”
Every new technological advancement used to explore sex can—and has—been used to exploit, from the cell phone to the VHS tape to the photocopier to the Polaroid to the pen. As Bonanos notes, “Woody Allen's scandalous relationship with his not-quite stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn, was revealed to the world in 1992 when her mother, Mia Farrow, spotted a stack of nudie Polaroid photos on his mantelpiece.” Of course, we didn’t condemn the Polaroid because one creep leveraged it to destroy his family. So let’s stop shaming teenagers for exploring sexual imagery through the cell phone shutter, instead of our own lens of 1960s nostalgia.