History

Roped and Trussed Just Like Dear Bettie Page

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Bettie Page, '50s pinup star and witch-hunt target, has died at age 85. Greg Beato described her place in pop history in a reason story last year, explaining that "Before Page, porn was about sex, not publicity":

bettiepage

[A]t the exact moment when soft-core erotica was evolving from under-the-counter specialty item to news-rack staple, Page was willing to show more than any woman prettier than her, and prettier than any woman who was willing to show more.

While Page is often credited for normalizing kink, for showing how even sun-kissed girl-next-door types could have a secret taste for lesbian spanking action, what's most notable about her oeuvre is how little sexual heat she radiates. Naked, fresh-scrubbed, practically incandescing with exuberance, she looks like she's posing for a vitamin ad. Rarely can one detect any libidinal ache, or even a mild hunger for something carnal. Clearly, the camera excited her—but not in that way. Its promise of fame was what got her off, and ultimately the potential for celebrity overwhelmed anything more specifically sexual her photos were supposed to communicate.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in her fetish work. Plenty of Page's contemporaries could drain the sexual tension from scenarios where only sunny beaches were involved, but only she could turn ball gags, stilettos, and all the other totems of sex as a dangerous, primal, overwhelming force into mere props for picture taking. Wielding a whip, sheathed in black nylon—none of it obscured her star-struck giddiness at the sight of a camera. Forever ready, it seemed, to break into a cheerleader's chant for deviance—"Gimme an S! Gimme an M!"—she reduced kink to kitschy fashion.

Later, Page would join the Billy Graham Crusade, spend a decade in a state mental institution, and give this assessment of her career to a Playboy interviewer: "When I turned my life over to the lord Jesus I was ashamed of having posed in the nude. But now, most of the money I've got is because I posed in the nude. So I'm not ashamed of it now. But I still don't understand it."

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  1. It was a sad day to see Betty Page pass on. I have always been a big fan of Betty Page. Her Jesus revelation was a low point, for me anyways, but I most definitely do not hold that against her. Love her or hate her she is an American icon that will be remembered for a long time.

  2. “But now, most of the money I’ve got is because I posed in the nude. So I’m not ashamed of it now. But I still don’t understand it.”

    Sounds as if Page understood the workings of the market about as well as the average libertarian.

  3. I used to have a coffee table book of S&M photography from the late 1800s to the 1950s. It started with photos of these real stern zaftig ladies in corsets and long dresses and ended with Bettie Page.

    Of all the photos, the ones with Bettie were the only ones where the girl was smiling.

    As a conversation starter, it worked ok. Although the kinds of conversations it started were dubious in their quality.

  4. Nice to see LoneDoucheBag’s finally awake.

  5. mk, isn’t the smiling thing due to photos taking a relatively long time for exposure? Truly candid shots of real unforced smiles wasn’t really possible til the 20th century.

    That said, Bettie Page is really cute in that pic. Truly a wonderful bit of americana.

  6. “Sounds as if Page understood the workings of the market about as well as the average libertarian.”

    Of course the the other two parties are obviously just flaunting their knowledge of economics…just look how healthy our economy is.

    Don’t you have a bridge to go live under.

  7. phalkor,

    isn’t the smiling thing due to photos taking a relatively long time for exposure?

    Yes and no. Various photographic process had differing times. The real problem was the brightness and and light frequencies available to indoor studios. But even given that, wet plate glass negatives could be exposed in indoor light in well under a minute. In fact, the movement from tintypes to cartes de visite involved so much overexposure that the “floating head” became a common style. (Notice that even the one on the right is overexposed around the edges.)

    The notion of playful photography was a long time coming. They were expensive and not to be used for frivolity. Culturally, you were sitting for a painted portrait. How many people who pay to have their picture painted grin or smile?

    Most early nudes shots I’ve seen are mostly playful and smiling. The explanation is probably more rooted in S&M notions of sternness. Page wasn’t the first nude girl to smile for the camera, just the first one to do it while tied up.

  8. I thought the ‘no smiling’ thing in pre-ww2 photos was that just about everyone (esp over the age of thirty) had god awful teeth.

  9. NutraSweet takes nude pictures of his students, claiming that since he’s using a cartes de visite method, it’s “educational”. But there’s no smiling, just crying.

  10. Most early nudes shots I’ve seen are mostly playful and smiling.

    Grammar train-wreck.

    Anyway, I looked it up: Most wet plate glass negatives could be exposed in 20 seconds when first introduced and the times fell steady as the chemistry improved.

  11. Good bye Bettie. You brought a lot of sunshine into a lot of dark corners. You are missed.

  12. Stop fantasizing about my students.

    There is a group of guys on campus who go to Civil War re-enactments and take aerial tintypes from a hot air balloon. Exposure times wouldn’t have really allowed that during the 1860s, but there are modern chemistry tricks for fast exposure tintypes.

    There’s even a poor soul trying to replicate daguerreotypes on campus. He’s had a devil of a time trying to electroplate his own copper backings. And some of the daguerreotype processes involve mercury vapor.

  13. mk, isn’t the smiling thing due to photos taking a relatively long time for exposure? Truly candid shots of real unforced smiles wasn’t really possible til the 20th century.

    Former photo lab tech and photography nerd, here.

    Page’s glory days were in the mid-20th century, using film negatives. At the time ASA 100 (roughly equivalent to ISO 100) was a really fast speed.

    Most photos of her were done at “photo clubs” which were as much about the naked girl as about the photography. However, they did have good lighting for the photo shoots, so exposure times were probably no longer than 1/15 of a second.

    Glass-plate wet negatives went out in the late 1800’s. George Eastman introduced a consumer roll-film camera in 1888 – the Kodak.

  14. Farewell, Bettie. We will all miss you. Thanks for being a foot soldier of the sexual revolution, even though it was through chance not design.

  15. Muybridge was getting fast,but faint, exposures with wet plates by the 1870s.

    I’m happy Ms Page lived long enough to see recognition that she really was as beautiful, famous and important as she ever aspired to be.

  16. Bettie’s impact on the whole pinup scene was huge, and she will be much missed.

    Regarding the smiling/not smiling thing: I doubt it has much to do with technical factors, just cultural ones. Look at paintings, which don’t have the same technical limitations – the idea that people should be smiling all the time is a recent one. A great example, from a very different genre, is the official portraits of the presidents. They didn’t start smiling until pretty recently.

  17. Sugarfree, not wise of this guy to mess with mercury vapor, unless he’s actively trying for a Darwin.

    Modern chemistry with Civil War technology is cool (as well as safer). Reminds me of “Girl Genius” or “Steamboy”…

  18. JD, it was different for ladies of 15-25 (give or take). I’ve seen lots of portraits from the 19th century of young women smiling. And there’s a whole genre of bucolic pastoral scenes; although, in those, the conceit was to show the young woman as if she didn’t know she was being watched. (“Girl on swing”, “girl running through clover”, etc)

  19. Sugarfree, not wise of this guy to mess with mercury vapor, unless he’s actively trying for a Darwin.

    It is this kind of pussy-whipped attitude that leads to smoking bans and bicycle helmets.

  20. SIV, I’m not suggesting the university ban him; I’m suggesting he show some common sense and personal responsibility, and stop fucking around with poison.

    And yes, I also believe in not smoking, and in wearing a helmet on a difficult and rocky biking trail. I act accordingly of my own free will.

    But if you feel like playing with mercury while smoking and riding a bike without a helmet, by all means go for it.

  21. Regarding the smiling/not smiling thing: I doubt it has much to do with technical factors, just cultural ones. Look at paintings, which don’t have the same technical limitations – the idea that people should be smiling all the time is a recent one. A great example, from a very different genre, is the official portraits of the presidents. They didn’t start smiling until pretty recently.

    Almost certainly, and it is not universal. A Japanese woman told me that she is still creeped the fuck out by Westerners because we smile all the damn time, even when we’re not happy.

    Muybridge was getting fast,but faint, exposures with wet plates by the 1870s.

    Good ol’ Eadweard. Inventing motion photography and action pornography all at the same time.

  22. I like to play in traffic, while smoking cigarettes, and tossing old thermometers at passing cars.

  23. She was a Goddess of Hotness, R.I.P. Ms. Page.

  24. “Mad as a Hatter” was just easier to say than “Mad as a Daguerreotypist”.

    He’s being fairly safe. Last time I talked to him he was going to abandon it for one of the non-mercury processes unless he could get access to a appropriately equipped hazmat lab. But then… it has been a while since I talked to him…

  25. BTW, there seems to be some confusion about when BP was alive and working. Not a slam, but just curious – do you guys really think she was from the 1800’s, or is it just confusion about nineteenth century (1800’s) vs twentieth century (1900’s)???

    Also, about the smile: I come from people who always made it a point to look serious when having a picture made. Possibly a cultural thing.

  26. Come to think of it, most of the flapper girls also smiled.

    My main point was that Bettie was the only subject in the book that was really photogenic. Photographers must have loved her.

  27. Tonio,

    I was trying to say that the book had pictures from the 1800s to the 1950s. Bettie was only in the later part of the book.

  28. Tonio,

    I think they are fine, I just mildly derailed the discussion by talking about the roots of not smiling by going 19th-century instead of sticking to the Page era.

  29. I didn’t think there was a way to process a daguerreotype plate properly w/o mercury vapor.
    Use a hood, or the old auto-painting standby “try not to breath a lot of this in”:)

    The greatest portrait photographers of all time didn’t suffer too mcuh from the mercury, Southworth lived into his 80s and Hawes into his 90s.

  30. How interesting it is that certain actresses/models achieve a visual style that becomes iconic. With Bettie Page it was the dark hair and bangs with black lingerie, with Marilyn Monroe the blond hair and that white dress from the subway grate scene, with Louise Brooks it was just her hair. I can’t think of any others that reached that iconographic level. Maybe Veronica Lake.

  31. SIV,

    They can be made by the Becquerel daguerreotype process. If you are really interested, it is laid out in detail in Coming Into Focus: A Step-by-Step Guide to Alternative Photographic Printing Processes by John Barnier. It will walk you through tintypes, ambrotypes, albumen prints, wet collodion process and much more.

  32. The Becquerel process produces good images, but not so fine as those produced using either hot mercury or cold mercury in a vacuum.

    ’nuff said.

  33. PapayaSF:
    That was going to be my comment. The particular Betty Page dark-hair-with-bangs style is so iconic that a lot of people wear it without even knowing where it came from. Same with Louise Brooks (different style, but just as popular).

  34. The saddest thing about the popularity of the Bettie Page haircut is how many women can’t realize than Page was attractive despite her haircut, not because of it. Bettie would have looked good in a rainbow clown wig. (And then Elemenope would only have to make her cry for his sick fetish.)

  35. “lesbian spanking action”
    Not to mention the catfighting that ended in lesbian spanking action. Damn, why have these keys becum sticky all of a sudden?
    I hope she is somewhere getting all the spankings she desires.

  36. I gotta think that part of Page’s current fame is due to the internet. Monroe and to a lesser extent Lake (and West) were famous in their time but continued to be fairly well known due to their ‘mainstreamness’. Without the interest, Page would have fallen down the memory hole until the obituary tomorrow due to her ‘notoriousness’. With the internet, otoh, notoriousness is an asset.

  37. Kolohe

    Images of Bettie never really went away and her “revival” was before popular use of the internet.
    Somewhere I have a stack of ‘zines called “The Bettie Pages” from the early 90s.

  38. I have to agree with SIV on the pre-internet popularity of Betty Page. In addition to “The Betty Pages”, pinup artist Olivia practically resurrected the art using Page’s likeness. I remember in the before times (1987-93) when DragonCon used to host the “Annual Betty Page Look-Alike Contest”, since replaced by a pale imitation involving an illustrated character.

    Betty Page and the influence she had on erotic art will be missed.

  39. Somewhere I have a stack of ‘zines called “The Bettie Pages” from the early 90s.

    early 90’s – internet was 99.9% porn vice the 99% of today.

    More seriously, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The ‘casual’ viewer did not know who Betty Page was until the ‘connesiuers’ took those mags and scanned them to the internet – mostly in the early 90’s.

    But now that I see kwix’s post, maybe I was just too young to be aware of it. I grew up with Julie Strain.

  40. The first time I heard of Bettie it was “oh that’s her name”. Her image was imprinted long before both as pinup and the “bondage girl”

  41. I wish to formally call myself out for multiple misspellings of “Betty” vs “Bettie” above. I feel shame.

    Kolohe, considering that the “World Wide Web” wasn’t created until 1991 and the first, semi-universal graphical browser (Mosaic) wasn’t released until 1993 I’d say that you are just too young.

  42. kwix, yeah and my perspective is further skewed by the fact that I had mosaic and was hooked into the www in 94 my junior year of college. (so i always thought it was ever thus). When you could go to a website titled “All the world wide web sites”. Most of which, even the academic ones, had at least a few pages of gifs of diverse variety.

    I apologize to Ms. Page as well for the misspellings.

  43. Wow. I’m older than most of you, and just learned more about Bettie Page than I ever wanted to know, or would have thought to ask. I just thought she was another ’50’s swimsuit pin-up. Didn’t know she posed nude, let alone S&M.

    And, come to think of it, didn’t care.

  44. Kwix,

    I’ve seen both spellings in period mags and the credits of film loops.

  45. period mags

    Ewww.

  46. hahahahahaha at above.

    Yeah, i hadn’t heard of this chick until a few years ago, and since then haven’t heard much of her. How famous was she in her day? I can totally see why though, she’s just the right kind of sexy.

  47. Andy: My sense is that she was not particularly famous in the ’50s. True, she was much-photographed, an early Playmate of the Month, etc., but back then she was one of many pinup girls and starlets, and such things weren’t really discussed in polite, mainstream culture.

    But starting in late ’60s she was rediscovered by artists like Jay Kinney, Dave Stevens, Olivia, etc., and that began a period of more widespread fame.

  48. Joel | December 12, 2008, 2:54pm | #
    [I] just learned more about Bettie Page than I ever wanted to know…
    Didn’t know she posed nude, let alone S&M.
    [I] didn’t care.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  49. Kolohe: “With the internet, otoh, notoriousness is an asset”.

    Notoriousness is one thing, but what about her notoriety? (ducking)

    :-{)}

  50. Wow, I had no idea that Paige spent time in a mental institution and regretted the work that she did. I think she’s part of history, and she should definitely not regret what she did!

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