By Jim Linderman
They may look tame today, even odd, but the photographs which came from the original “Camera Club Sessions” in New York City during the early 1950s not only mark the beginning of modern day erotic photography, from them emerged an unlikely fashion icon and star, Bettie Page.
Nude photography in the United States was taboo and virtually unknown in the 1950s. Of course, there are some exceptions. The six photo “strip sets” sold in the back of men’s magazines and from under the counter in Times Square, “French” postcards and the occasional “art” photograph. But the first real erotic photography which led to the smut explosion of the 1970s and what we consider nude photography today started in the 1950s with a small, informal group of shutterbugs who have come to be known as the camera clubs.
Certainly the most eccentric of the camera club participants was Rudolph Rossi, and we know this only by the work he left behind. Discovered fifty years after they were taken, some 150 photographs were found, the majority being 8″ x 10″ and remarkably, each meticulously hand-painted by the artist.
Rossi took the photographs using black and white film and developed them himself. Few amateur camera hobbyists had the technology to develop color film in the 1950s when these were taken, so in isolation Rossi created his own erotic world of color.
There were photographs of Bettie Page, who deserves every ounce of acclaim she receives today, but as important are the dozens of assorted anonymous models who participated in the camera club outings and indoor shoots. A somewhat motley group of aspiring actresses and working girls, each willing to undress for an hourly fee ranging from ten to twenty five dollars. Even more remarkable is that the group was interracial at a time when there was little interaction between the races, especially in the nude.
Much of the credit, if you will, goes to Cass Carr, the organizer of the camera club outings. A Harlem jazz musician and sometime photographer, he realized there was a need for nude photography models and that there were plenty of amateurs willing to pay for the privilege. In fact, among the photographers who participated were such notables as Weegee, the famed crime photographer who knew Bettie Page as a friend and neighbor. Others of note include Art Amsie, Arnold Kovacks, Don Baida, Robert Collins, Morris Glassman, Robert Stanton, Sam Menning, Arnold Kovacks and even at least one unknown woman who appears in a Weegee photograph of a session, camera in hand!
During one outing in upstate New York, the entire group was arrested, a debacle depicted in the film “The Notorious Bettie Page” and reported in Jet Magazine in 1952. Jet was aghast and accused Carr of taking advantage of “negro chorus girls and singers down on their luck” but from all other accounts, the sessions were congenial and friendly, Certainly in the Rossi photographs, it all appears to be harmless fun. Carr paid his fine, the girls were set free.
In retrospect, and with the considerable passage of time, this harmless fun now becomes legendary. Not only for the participants, who were challenging convention and the strict values of the Eisenhower years in a manner just significant as that of the beat writers and jazz musicians of the decade, but for all the erotic photographers who have followed and can now work in a far less controlled and threatening environment.
The full story of the Camera Clubs is told in the book Camera Club Girls – Bettie Page and her Friends: The Work of Rudolph Rossi by Jim Linderman. Over 100 of Rossi’s photographs are shown along with numerous historical images and ephemera from the time, the book is available from Blurb.com
Jim Linderman edits the daily site vintage sleaze which tells true stories from the forgotten era of smut. He is a Grammy-nominated collector, writer, artist and scholar. More information is available at his website and also on the art and photography site dull tool dim bulb.