Warning: This article contains some serious nudity and is probably not appropriate for work.
His pseudonym was Monsieur X. His subject, the sex workers of Paris.
"The mysterious Mr. X is an amateur and yet so professional by the quality of his images," French collector Alexandre Dupouy explained to the Huffington Post. "A photographer of the 30s, yet so close to our contemporary voyeurism. Obsessional yet attaining a rare degree of complicity with his models."
Dupouy, whose shop The Tears of Eros specializes in erotic and pornographic imagery, stumbled upon Monsieur X's work by accident. Around 1975, when in his 80s, Monsieur X left his life's work to a Parisian bookseller of similar tastes, including several thousand 18 x 24-centimeter prints, about a hundred 6 x 13-centimeter stereoscopic prints, and two 10-minute films. The nameless bookseller contacted Dupouy, who acquired the images and agreed to keep the photographer's identity anonymous.
After carefully examining the photos, Dupouy identified certain car models that approximately dated Monsieur X's works between 1925 and 1935. Brothels were legal in Paris until 1946. Thanks to a recognizable balcony, Dupouy ascertained the site of the brothel depicted at 75 Rue Jean Baptiste Pigalle.
Monsieur X's photographs often feature names like Fanfan, Gaby, Gypsi, Jojo, Mado, Mimi, Nenette and Nono scribbled on the back, provide an alluring and sometimes alarming vision of life as a sex worker in early-1900s Paris. Although the images are most often playful, featuring big smiles and frisky poses, they hint at the struggles these young women were subjected to.
"The typical profile was a girl that came to Paris to make money so that she could feed her family back on the farm somewhere in the countryside," Dupouy explained in an interview with Vice. "Hungry and unemployed, the girl often stumbled across a Madame that would promise them shelter and warmth. One would usually end up staying with 10 or 15 girls in the same situation."
At the time, a sex worker earned around 10 times that of a regular worker, Dupouy added. However, the extra income came at a price. Disease was rampant and access to protection was paltry. "Condoms existed, but weren't mandatory. The girls cleaned themselves with something called 'hygienic sponges.' The sponges had, of course, absolutely no efficiency."
Yet, DuPouy explained, the vile working and living conditions these women faced yielded unconventional and wildly intimate friendships.
These girls are used to displaying themselves, caressing themselves, alone or in company. One can guess that they live in the nude, in the same room, the same house.
Along with the images, Monsieur X gifted texts from the private notebooks of some of the photographed women, illuminating the details of their daily rituals. One reads:
I decided to go visit with my friends Marie and Fanfan, just for a change. It’s not the same thing when we’re just between girls, it’s for fun, nothing serious. We fondle each other, relaxing after the day’s work, and sometimes we all fall asleep, snuggled up just like kittens.
When they saw me, the face I had, they started teasing me right off. Then we started comparing our pussies. Marie’s is large, with full, rich lips like little cheeks, they make a kind of kissing sound when they part. Fanfan’s is more oblong and thin-lipped, its opening dark red, it wiggles just like an oister when you put your finger in. Then they splayed my thighs, calling me their poor little kitten. I was nice and wet, glistening through the curls, they went on together: "Don’t you cry, little pussy, he’ll be back." Then Fanfan went down on me, that was really sweet of her.
Another private journal entry, dated December 1934, describes the subject's interactions with Monsieur X:
Mr. X is as punctual as he’s elegant, he’s a precise gentleman. He arrives at two o’clock on the dot, just after lunch, goes about setting up his photographic equipment at the far end of the room and asks us to act as if he wasn’t there. Well, he doesn’t have to ask us twice. Marie, Fanfan and I all quickly remove our panties and whatever else is superfluous, then we settle down on the floor, on the couch, or just stay standing up, whatever our fancy. Fanfan’s always the one to get us started, just by looking at us in her mischievous, oblique way. She begins by showing us off, opening wide our thighs. What she sees seems to stimulate her, to bring her a lots of pleasure, as if she was discovering incredible treasures, almost too beautiful for such an old bugger. She taunts him a bit as if he should be ashamed to be watching us, that’s her wont with fellows of his type. Then all of a sudden we’ve become a confused tangle of flesh, heads, legs, bums; a many-headed monster, actively enjoying itself, all else forgotten, as our peeping-Tom gets carried away behind his camera.
Monsieur X occupies an ambiguous role as photographer -- both masked voyeur and close confidante. The intimate mischief of the photographs divulge the inexplicable comfort the documented sex workers seemed to feel in his presence. In Dupouy's words, "Mr. X was truly an amateur in the noblest sense of the term, an individual who created his images for his own pleasure, not for commercial reasons."
And that's about all we know about Monsieur X, save for the one image in which he accidentally photographs his own reflection in the mirror.
Dupouy compared the explicit treasure trove of images to the work of late 19th century New Orleans photographer E.J. Bellocq, known for befriending and chronicling the lives of sex workers in New Orleans' Storyville red-light district. Today, many contemporary photographers have explored documenting the lives of sex workers, including, among others, Mary Ellen Mark, Nan Goldin, Yana Toyber, Scot Sothern, Marc McAndrews and Kaveh Golestan.
Yet for Dupouy, the more recent archives, not to mention the more widespread bounty of mainstream pornographic imagery, doesn't compare to the exuberant promiscuity of earlier times. "In our present sclerosed times," he said, "what with the obsolescence of the pink pages, the brothels having been shut down, and the pornographic industry’s stultifying production of stereotyped images, perhaps some solace can be found in discovering the vanished world of a few intriguing eroticists of the past."
Also on HuffPost: