now on view in NYC

Vamps and Virgins: Evolution of American Pinup Photography, 1860-1960

The Museum of Sex celebrated its second anniversary with the October opening of Vamps & Virgins: The Evolution of American Pinup Photography 1860-1960. The new exhibition traced the development of the classic American pinup photo from early hardcore imagery in the mid 19th century to her apex in cheesecake images of the 1950s.

According to exhibition curator, Jennifer Kabat, Vamps & Virgins exposed the secret history of the pinup, which mirrors mainstream 20th century history and charts how the role of women has changed and their images have been employed for more than 100 years. “The development of the pinup and its accompanying spread of scantily-clad ladies across American culture, from ads and billboards to TV, is easily the single most important development impacting women’s rights, the history of sexuality, and feminism over the last century,” Ms. Kabat said. “In this post-modern, post-Playboy world we’re used to our pinups coming self-aware, self-assured and as self-described feminists, but it wasn’t always the case.”

At its inception, erotic photography was far more explicit than contemporary images. Traded privately, these pictures now have a quaint feel with their couples (and threesomes, foursomes and more) sporting serious expressions and often matching costumes. Toned down as the images spread to the populace at large in postcard form, the pinup started to wear the camp, coy expressions that are the genre’s hallmark, reaching her highpoint with Bettie Page. After Page, the style changed again, turning towards the explicit look of the contemporary centerfold.

“Looking at thousands of images of mute women, one can only wonder what they would say about their images and how they were used. Unfortunately most are still silent witnesses to what has been one of the most important cultural events in history,” Kabat continued.

“Vamps & Virgins brought the classic American pinup to the forefront of discussion, displaying the historic import of her legacy — one that has given impetus to such fashionable entertainment today as the popular resurgence of burlesque,” says Museum of Sex founder and Executive Director Daniel Gluck. “As the Museum celebrates its second anniversary, we look forward to continuing to provide museum goers with provocative exhibitions, unique in the American cultural landscape.”

Based on work in the Mark Rotenberg collection, Vamps & Virgins made available to the public the breadth of his holdings for the first time ever. With hundreds and thousands of films, photographs, and magazines, the collection is virtually unparalleled, and the exhibition used them to explore the shifting place of women in erotic material from the Victorian era through the early 1960s.