Charming Pornographic Photographs of French Prostitutes from the 1930s
I talked to collector Alexandre Dupouy about a cache of pictures donated by an anonymous photographer.
This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Note: This article contains images with full-frontal nudity.
Alexandre Dupouy is a sex archaeologist. The French collector has spent his entire life collecting what he defines as "erotic and pornographic junk." His shop, the Tears of Eros—now open only by appointment—has been selling pictures, paintings, and sex objects for almost half a century. It's a sort of small museum that traces the history of sex in France.
In 1975, he received a call from a bookseller friend who said that he had an old gentleman with "something special to show him." What he had was a luxury car with a trunk full of black-and-white photographs of naked and smiling prostitutes from the 1930s. He explained that he took most of the pictures in a brothel on the Rue Pigalle. Given that he could feel his days were numbered, the old man agreed to part with the pictures as long as he could remain anonymous. That man became known as "Monsieur X."
Nearly four decades later, Dupouy has decided to reprint some of this impressive collection as a book called Bad Girls (La Manufacture Books, 2014). The book is co-authored by both Dupouy and Monsieur X. Given that the actual photographer is no longer alive, I decided to have a word with Depouy about the book.
VICE: Can you try to describe a typical early-20th-century Parisian prostitute?
Alexandre Dupouy: The typical profile was a girl who came to Paris to make money so she could feed her family back on the farm somewhere in the countryside. Hungry and unemployed, the girl often stumbled across a madame who would promise her shelter and warmth. One would usually end up staying with ten or 15 girls in the same situation. At that time, a prostitute earned roughly ten times more than a regular worker. In 1900, a worker was earning two francs per day, whereas a street prostitute charged five francs per job—20 francs if she was in a brothel.
What were the working conditions for a prostitute of the time?
In a way, it was similar to sport. One could do the job for about two or three years before being totally damaged. Diseases were common, and the access to protection was really bad. Condoms existed but weren't mandatory. The girls cleaned themselves with something called "hygienic sponges." The sponges had, of course, absolutely no efficacy.
Some say that Paris used to be the prostitution capital of the world, right?
By the 1920s, it had calmed down a bit. But for a century before that, it certainly was. From Madeleine to the Bastille, there were red-light districts all over Paris.
In the early 20th century, the city was a hotspot for prostitution. In those days, men didn't have very exciting sex lives with their wives. Also, if you were a man in the middle class, you would get married by 35. There would always be some misbehaving uncle to show you the joys of a brothel once you hit puberty.
How did you react to Monsieur X's collection?
It was immediately obvious that it was unique in terms of both quality and quantity. There were hundreds of pictures. Taken one by one, they gave a real insight into the hell of life on the Rue Pigalle.
How did you work on these photographs without being able to verify dates, time, or basically any accurate information?
Given the amount of photographs, I assumed that this work took place over the course of a decade. Taking into account some of the car models that you can see in the photos, I estimated they were shot between 1925 and 1935. Finally, because a couple of images were shot on a distinctive balcony, I figured out that the brothel was located at 75 Rue Jean Baptiste Pigalle.
Was it hard to figure out more?
No, we found some more photos by him that weren't at all erotic. Photos of upper-class women taken in beautiful homes. Today when his prints are sold at the Rue Drouot auction they're labelled as "Monsieur X." The guy has definitely gained respect as a photographer posthumously.
On the back of the photos Monsieur X wrote the name of each girl: Mado, Suzette, Gypsi, Mimi, Nono, Pepe, etc.
Monsieur X must have been close, friendly, and generous with the ladies. What is amazing is that the girls seem very relaxed in the pictures—they are actually having fun. There are even outdoor pictures taken on the banks of the Marne. He also directed two ten-minute short films, shot both outdoors and indoors. These two pieces really revealed his biggest fantasy: putting two girls together. One played a modest girl, while the other tried to be a stripper.
There's also a lot of similarities to Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World. He also liked pretty exhibitionists. Or E. J. Bellocq—the New Orleans photographer who was also a regular customer of a local brothel, eventually making friends with the girls so that he could take any picture he wanted.
Were these brothels legal?
Brothels in Paris remained completely legal until 1946. Most of the bigger brothels had already closed by 1925, though. The Sphinx was a typical 1930s brothel: There was a bar and a restaurant and women were allowed to come too. These things were a bit different from the earlier brothels. These new small brothels were called "appointment houses" or "houses of tolerance." Politicians, both Gaullists and Communists, accused some brothel owners of working with the Germans during the occupation.
Was that the case?
It depends. The One-Two-Two (122 Rue de Provence) was actually used by the Germans. The Sphinx was, according to the memoirs of its madam, far closer to the resistance networks. What most people actually considered the most serious charge was that the Germans gave many brothels champagne and good food. If a woman got plump while others starved, you knew she wasn't all that interested in liberation.
How do you see the current state of prostitution in France?
What I see is that prostitution has decreased by leaps and bounds—there's not that many prostitutes. I think this is due to marital relations. In the 19th century, if a bourgeoisie man asked [his wife] for fellatio, he would often be denied. And when it was accepted, it wasn't done properly—often women hurt their husbands.
That's why the role of the prostitute is dying. Today, the regular customers are also the most depressing: people who haven't had sex in ages, husbands who love to cheat on their wives, or erotomaniac millionaires—Dominique Strauss-Kahn's sort of vibe.