Review: The Playboy Archives, Proud Gallery, Camden.
I’m starting to regret this now. I’m sitting in the pub explaining to a friend why I am reviewing the Playboy archives and it’s all sounding a little…..sleazy. “It’s about design” I say none too convincingly. I give up asking anyone if they want to come see the show with me and end up going alone, furtively shuffling ‘round the exhibition with a notebook like a teenager with a Pamela Anderson obsession. Having said that, once inside, the Playboy Archives is considerably less revealing than you might imagine. It consists of a collection of covers from 1953 onwards, some stand-alone photographs of famous Playmates of the Month (including, bizarrely, Katarina Witt) and some framed interviews with famous men. There are also various pictures of founder Hugh Hefner in the exhibition, usually shown wandering the near mythic Playboy mansion wearing silk pyjamas.
Playboy is generally regarded as upmarket soft pornography. In fact it is read by the sort of people who might baulk at the term pornography preferring euphemisms such as ‘gentlemen’s entertainment’ or, worse, ‘erotica’. In this, it aspires both to be something other than a humble porn mag, and to elevate the porn element to a civilised hobby on a par with pipe smoking and vintage motor-cars. For a start it has writing in it, and not just of the “I never thought the stories in your magazine were true until…” variety. It carries interviews with famous men (not women) and fiction from serious writers. It also though, unarguably, has lots of pictures of naked women in it. These pictures are either, depending on your constitution, rather tame or more explicit than you imagined. It’s not Razzle but it’s not The Lady either.
Time has given the 1950’s and ‘60’s Playmates an inevitable period charm – today they seem as de-sexualised as a bit of What the Butler Saw Edwardian saucy-ness. The period hairdos, moustaches (on the men, mostly) and clothes draw attention away from what was originally the point. In fact, hair is a key component in porn: at least of the pubic variety. In the 50’s and 60’s it was generally not seen at all. By the ‘70’s it is there in all its glory. In fact, given today’s tastes for depilation, it is perversely the hair that tends to shock most. The ‘70’s were also an excellent period for unusual props. Horses were a favourite, with naked women shown leading them through lens flare improved countryside like a porno Sandy Denny. By the 80’s, the bodies had become harder and, of course, more hairless. They also started to be designed for the job, leading to the purpose built caricatures of Pamela Anderson, Carmen Elektra and Jordan. The ‘80’s also saw the rise of various famous photographers including Mike Figgis and Helmut Newton, both shown in this exhibition. Here, porn brushes up against art, but in a fundamentally rather naff way. As Susan Sontag has pointed out, if pornography has claims to art, then it is more through its potential for transgression than through arty composition or ‘classy’ imagery.
Alongside the excesses of today’s so-called Gonzo porn, Playboy seems relatively harmless: very much the product of a boy’s imagination that thinks new gadgets, well tailored suits, sexist jokes and, of course, lots of naked ladies, are the accoutrements of sophistication. All, of course, unthreatened by anything as troubling as sexual politics, female desire or un-airbrushed flesh. The spin-off from this veneer of sophistication was that there was a certain subtlety and inventiveness that went into the presentation. But, just as the bodies have become more designed the magazine has become less so. Whilst the covers of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s were often graphically striking in their own right, the latest ones merely list the magazine’s contents around yet another famous face. And, as the bodies themselves have become more ruthlessly exposed to the light, they have had to work that much harder to retain our attention: shaved, taped, pumped up and, finally, photo-shopped into a kind of freaky perfection,
See, it was about design. So, I return to the pub, suitably unembarrassed, but not before I have picked up some new silk pyjamas on the way.