Sex Goddesses & Pin-Up Queens
‘Calendar Girls: Sex Goddesses & Pin-Up Queens of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s’
by Jon Ortner
In conversation with Barney McDonald
“Almost universally, we perceive the body as the vessel of the soul
and the centre from which we experience the universe.
For better or worse, we have long equated beauty of body with beauty of soul.”
Jon Ortner is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning photographer and writer, with six books currently in worldwide distribution. He has spent the past 35 years exploring some of the most beautiful and remote places on Earth, from the mystical, spiritual landscapes of the Himalayas and Southeast Asia to the deeply eroded and vividly colored canyons of the American Southwest. His fine art work also includes a recently published and highly praised book of stylistic black and white nudes, Peak of Perfection: Nude Portraits of Dancers, Athletes and Gymnasts. An avid collector of ephemera, Ortner has spent more than three decades assembling one of the world’s largest collections of photographic pin-up calendars featuring legendary glamour queens and sex goddesses of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, all stylistically photographed by top photographers of the day.
Barney McDonald is a New Zealand-based writer, publisher, photographer, promoter and DJ whose multi-award-winning pop and youth culture magazine Pavement was both revered and reviled for its unflinching coverage of music, film, art, fashion and beauty. Ever the provocateur with tongue-in-cheek and hand-on-heart, he delights in celebrating the best of culture while disparaging the worst, especially in this sallow age of social media decay. A most devout collector, he has amassed stupid arrays of records, movies, posters, photographic books, Simpsons figurines, Soviet memorabilia, retro futuristic lamps and chairs, not to mention a formidable library of pinup books himself. Plus, he fuckin’ loves to travel and really digs his wife Kate and their black and white cat Lebowski.
In the midst of an era in which male behaviour is more heavily scrutinised than the male gaze, it’s both refreshing and enlightening to look upon images of idealised female beauty from an age when such depictions possessed an innocence and charm mostly lacking in today’s popular culture.
Pin-up art and photography, alongside associated female-oriented art forms like burlesque and vintage fashion, are now being seen as the acceptable face of female objectification, anchored as they once were in varying degrees of modesty and coquettishness. While today’s self-righteous media rails against men for implied or documented infractions against women, a parallel world exists where women are innocently revered as paragons of beauty, poise and style, though mostly it’s a bygone state only hinted at these days by contemporary goddesses like Dita von Teese, Gia Genevieve, Stefania Ferrario and Miss Mosh—unabashed women doing their bit to embody the acceptable face of contemporary female empowerment in a pair of stockings and stilettos. Disappointingly, you largely have to look to the past for the real deal—gloriously naked women all sexes can happily venerate—rather than tread today’s delicate high wire act of socio-political correctness dictated by an uptight and morally upright society too confounded by its own hubris to enjoy the goodness in life.
The golden age of pin-up art and cheesecake photography inhabited the 1920s to the 1960s, with each decade offering new twists and turns in the evolution of these delightful art forms. In those hallowed times, full nudity was almost entirely absent, men never featured, and the poses, costumes, props, hair and makeup were not only emblematic of the styles of the times, they also reinforced an undeniable naturalness and normalcy to the women and the pictures themselves. Furthermore, it was the calm before the storm represented by hardcore pornography, wherein pin-up’s naïve celebration of beauty and femininity was supplanted by more primal urges that tossed quaint concepts like morals and standards, not to mention artistic endeavour, out the proverbial window.
Slotting somewhere between cheesecake and hardcore came the calendar girl, a rare breed of pin-up that put the naked into nudity without raising blood pressure or the ire of the moralists too much. These wonderful women—alongside a number of devoted photographers and publishers—crafted a space where it was okay to display the charms of nude or suggestively posed and attired beauties, at least in commercially commissioned calendar form. Often shown chatting on the telephone, adjusting a flimsy item of clothing, brushing hair, toying with pearls or—cliché alert—biting into an apple, they invited desire without any of today’s nihilistic lasciviousness. Designed to attract the attention of the men whose products the sponsor hoped to appeal to, the calendars were able to reach the areas in the male brain that conventional advertising wasn’t permitted to titillate—specifically, the amygdala and hypothalamus, if you wish to be scientific. In the process, the industry provided an income stream for numerous Hollywood aspirants—both photographer and model alike—while adding immeasurable surface and depth to the history of the nude in twentieth century photography.
This happy confluence of art and commerce leaves us with a legacy of pin-up calendars that both men and women in the past and the present can openly enjoy. And thanks to pin-up calendar collectors like American photographer Jon Ortner, those wonderful pictures and artefacts are able to remind us of what an age of comparative innocence looks like. Ortner, whose passions for landscapes, temples and the bodies of dancers has led to the publication of several books of his own pictures, has amassed a formidable collection of pin-up calendars that would make even the most ardent collector blush. His keen eye for a good art book has led to the production of a sumptuous tome devoted to the crème de la crème of his expansive collection, with his opening essay and lovingly curated gallery of pin-ups and calendars tastefully packaged in a hefty hardback that demands to be left open on the coffee table. Like the motivation behind the original images, if not the calendars themselves, the book is designed to provoke a celebratory reaction, so let’s invite Ortner to walk us through it.
Barney McDonald: You started your pin-up calendar collecting with the Holy Grail—the ‘Golden Dreams’ calendar featuring Marilyn Monroe. Did you have any idea what path you were embarking on at the time?
Jon Ortner: I bought it just because I thought Marilyn was so spectacularly beautiful. I was struck by her perfect figure and pale skin, photographed against the deep crimson velvet backdrop. I just found the image graphically powerful, the pose supremely graceful and her beauty exceptional. I never imagined that the collecting of these nude calendars would become such an obsession.
BM: How much did that calendar cost you at the flea market you bought it from, and how much would it be worth now?
JO: If I remember correctly, I paid about $12 for that calendar. It was the smaller sized version. That size now goes for anywhere from $250 to $500, depending on condition. The much larger versions of the original John Baumgarth Calendar Company calendar in the large size, 16 x 33 inches, can now fetch anywhere from $2000 to $5000. No one knows yet how much the original press proofs are worth.
BM: After embarking on this journey, how long did it take before you were knocking on the doors of printers and calendar salesmen to acquire original, un-faded proofs?
JO: I had the calendar in my photo studio for years, and when eBay first started in 1995, on a whim, I put in the search words for ‘nude pin-up calendars’ and saw a few very large ones featuring unknown models. I bought a couple of them for about $15 to $20 each. When I received them, I was shocked. Although the dates showed that the calendars were from the early 1950s, they appeared to be mint, unmarred and never hung. They had no wrinkles or scratches, and the colors were as bright and fresh as the day they were printed. At first I thought these must be modern reprints. How could they be in this condition from the 1950s? At that time, it was much easier to get in touch with sellers on eBay, so I wrote an email to the lady who sold them to me. She explained that her husband, now deceased, was the owner of the printing company, and that she had many of the uncirculated printers proofs. These proofs were pulled from the original print runs, and kept in sealed drawers to be used as proofs to check color fidelity, as the later press runs were done. I then asked her if I could buy the rest of the proofs she had. When they arrived, they were so spectacularly beautiful that I began my search for more. I think what struck me the most, was firstly how beautiful the models were. And of course they all featured natural bodies, with no surgical augmentation at that time. I was also struck by how creative and colorful the sets were. Plus, the quality of the images themselves appeared super sharp, with incredible detail. I discovered much later that many of the Hollywood photographers at that time were using large format View Cameras – as large as 8” x 10” – and were often using Kodachrome 25, an early color transparency film, first developed in 1935, that featured the finest color fidelity and reproduction quality of any film, before or since then.
BM: Across your three decades of collecting, how many calendars have you collected? And what are your favorites?
JO: I’m not sure how many are in my collection, but probably over 3000. My favorite two publishers are Western Lithograhics and The Famous 500 Hollywood Line. Superior Eagle Line was also one of the top publishers. These three companies used the most beautiful models, had the best printing quality, featured the most colorful and interesting sets, and produced calendars of the largest sizes, which went up to 22” x 45”.
BM: Can you estimate how much you’ve spent on them, and how much they’d all be worth now?
JO: I have no idea how much I’ve spent over 35 years of collecting, but I think the collection might now be worth in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Almost universally, we perceive the body as the vessel of the soul and the centre from which we experience the universe. For better or worse, we have long equated beauty of body with beauty of soul.”
– Jon Ortner
BM: How did the book come about?
JO: When I first started looking for a publisher for my own fine art photography black and white nude book, Peak of Perfection, I found a very successful illustrated book publisher based out of Atglen, Pennsylvania, named Schiffer. When I looked at their extensive catalogue, I noticed that besides publishing fine art photographic books of the highest quality, they also published a large catalogue of books geared towards antique collectors. They had an extensive array of books on quilts, antique glass, even Civil War uniforms. When I showed my collection to Pete Schiffer, he loved the idea of doing this book. Although many books had been published on pin-up illustrators such as Rolf Armstrong, Gil Elvgren and Earl Moran, no large format, beautifully printed art book had been done on photographic nude calendars.
BM: Achieving the highest quality reproductions seems like one of your goals in creating the book. How difficult did that prove?
JO: When I first thought about creating the book, I assumed it’d be a relatively easy task to just photograph the original calendars with the high resolution digital cameras I was already using for my commercial photography. Unfortunately, I learned a hard lesson. Although modern digital cameras are capable of creating high res digi files of almost any scene outdoors, they have problems reproducing certain repetitive patterns, such as fabric or a brick wall. Since these calendars were printed using offset lithography, I had a recurring problem of moiré. Moiré is an unwanted wavy color pattern, caused by digital capture of a repeating pattern, often found in fabric, architectural details and offset dots of ink. It took a lot of research, consultation and trial and error to finally solve and correct the problem.
BM: Do you feel these pictures, photographers, models and calendars deserve somewhere special to be viewed and appreciated beyond the confines of a book, such as a museum or gallery?
JO: Yes, and I have been approached by some of the top photo and art galleries here in New York City to have a show. Unfortunately, they wanted to choose the best ones and sell them at the time of the show. I felt that perhaps the collection could have a larger use in a museum setting, and I wasn’t ready to break up the collection and sell just a small number of the best ones. When I do sell the collection, I would like to sell the entire collection to a single buyer, with the idea of creating a pin-up museum.
BM: Are the pictures a celebration of “joyfulness, good health and fitness”, as one of the blurbs for your book insists, or do they simply and honestly revere the unfettered sexiness of naked or nearly naked women?
JO: I’ve always felt that these images are indeed a celebration of joyfulness, good health and fitness. And that is exactly what Marilyn Monroe stated when the studios told her to deny that she’d posed nude.
BM: Is it problematic celebrating and revering women in this way during what people euphemistically term the #metoo era?
JO: No, I don’t believe so. Appreciation of beauty permeates all cultures. Nancy Etcoff, researcher and author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, cites beauty as “an essential and ineradicable part of human nature that is revered and ferociously pursued in nearly every civilization”. Almost universally, we perceive the body as the vessel of the soul and the centre from which we experience the universe. For better or worse, we have long equated beauty of body with beauty of soul.
Beauty is an essential component of our experience of the world. Its pursuit, like the desire for food or sex, is a primeval urge driven by a basic instinct that fuels the procreative force of evolution. Anthropologist Don Symons wrote, “Beauty is not whimsical. Beauty has meaning. Beauty is functional”. In evolutionary terms, beauty’s power of attraction is unquestionably biological. Beauty serves as a sexual display, a visual symbol of fertility and fecundity. In fact, reproductive attraction is the basis for our concept of physical beauty.
“The power of beauty cannot be overstated, especially in current American culture, which literally worships the incarnation of unique and rare beauty in its movie stars and supermodels.”
– Jon Ortner
As a species, we possess an innate “beauty template” against which we compare every face and body we see. Etcoff observed that, “what was biologically advantageous became an aesthetic preference”. Shiny hair and unblemished, youthful skin are obvious signs of good health, strength and fertility. In women, facial features such as large eyes, high cheekbones, plump lips and a small chin indicate low androgen and high estrogen. A narrow waist, full hips and firm breasts were also indicators of good reproductive potential. Beauty is the biological imperative that also shapes the male preference for the female “hourglass” figure – those curvaceous body proportions viewed today as being sexy, attractive and healthy. This same, low waist-to-hip ratio has appeared consistently in various forms throughout human civilization, from ancient stone figurines dedicated to fertility, to modern pin-up girl posters, Playboy Playmate pictorials and Miss America winners. Women are no less influenced by beauty, preferring in men the visual signs of high testosterone levels, as seen in bodies that are tall and muscular, with broad shoulders and a square jaw.
The power of beauty cannot be overstated, especially in current American culture, which literally worships the incarnation of unique and rare beauty in its movie stars and supermodels. Beauty, youth and sex appeal are valuable commodities that bestow enormous status upon those who possess them. The glorification of these attributes, particularly through advertising, has deeply affected the way in which we look at ourselves and has, in turn, driven the fashion, lingerie and cosmetic industries. Ways to augment or mimic reproductive fitness, such as through make-up, cosmetic surgeries and flattering clothing, are in never-ending demand.
BM: Do you think a celebration of femininity can also be considered feminist, or are they diametrically oppositional concepts?
JO: The depiction of female sexuality has always been a two-edged sword. Some women believe that any depiction of a woman’s sexual attributes is a form of objectification that is sexist and negative. On the other hand, beauty is power, and the movie stars of Hollywood used that to obtain great status and wealth. In today’s pop culture, some of the biggest stars have used their sexuality and pin-up style to define their personalities. Madonna, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, to name a few, have patterned their entire careers after the pin-ups of the 1940s and ‘50s.
BM: Considering the initial furore over Marilyn Monroe’s nude calendar when it first hit the market, was nude modelling particularly problematic back in the 40s, 50s and 60s?
JO: Yes it was. When the first nudes of Marilyn Monroe came out, she was still under contract with Hollywood movie studios 20th Century Fox and Columbia. The studio heads brought Marilyn in and told her to deny that it was, in fact, her in the nude images. She responded that she’d done nothing wrong, that the images were beautiful, and that they would make her a big star, which of course they did. In fact, the Golden Dreams image is the most reproduced and distributed color photograph in history, with over four million copies of the calendar in various forms. And the two nude images of her used for the majority of later calendars and in the first issue of Playboy magazine, made Marilyn the biggest and highest paid star in Hollywood, and ultimately the most recognized face and body in all of pop culture. In typical Marilyn style, when asked by the first newspaper journalists if it was true she’d posed with nothing on, she replied, “No, that isn’t true. I had the radio on while I was modelling”.
BM: I only counted one black model in the book, and just a handful of Asian and Latino models. Were there calendars that catered to other ethnic groups or markets? Or was it too difficult or unpopular till after the civil rights movement changed American history and culture?
“Beauty, youth and sex appeal are valuable commodities that bestow enormous status upon those who possess them.”
– Jon Ortner
JO: There were very few black or Hispanic models that appeared in the widely distributed nude calendars. However, there were many black and Hispanic nude models that modelled for the huge number of amateur camera clubs throughout America. Images of those models, photographed almost entirely on black and white film, are highly collected and well known among pin-up aficionados. The most famous camera club model was Bettie Page, who attained superstardom status because of her vivacious personality and natural beauty, but also partially because of the S&M themes she joyfully portrayed.
Also, there’s a distinct lack of pubic hair in the pictures in the book, yet we can readily assume that pubic hair was the female norm before the advent of the Brazilian. Were there more risqué calendars between the 40s and 60s? Or did printers and customers have to await the liberating influence of magazines like Playboy and Penthouse before calendar pictures became truly au naturel?
JO: It’s true that in almost all the large, arty pin-up calendars, pubic hair is rarely shown. Due to the rigid censorship laws, it was illegal to send nude photographs showing pubic hair through the mail. Calendar publishers got around those restrictions by publishing post office-friendly versions of the most popular calendar models with either the pubic hair retouched out or with lace overlays covering both the crotch and nipples. In the 50s and 60s, when censorship laws were relaxed, many magazines started featuring images that showed the crotch full on. These were nudes just for the sake of sexual arousal, lacking the charm, innocence, creativity and beauty of the Hollywood pin-ups. Having said that, many of the top nude models of the time shaved their pubic hair in order to reduce the time spent on retouching and to appear more youthful and clean.
Nude calendar art survived and thrived well into the 70s and 80s, maybe even the 90s thanks to the likes of Pirelli, but now seem to have fallen by the wayside. Why do you think that is? And will the pendulum swing back the other way again?
The pendulum is always swinging back and forth, as it did in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But ultimately, the power of extraordinary beauty will win out.
Webster defines it as “that which gives the highest degree of pleasure to the senses, or to the mind… as by color, form, texture, proportion, or rhythmic motion”. The American philosopher George Santayana described beauty as “pleasure objectified”, while Anatole France, famed French poet and novelist, wrote that beauty was “more profound than truth itself”.
How perfectly adapted, then, is the camera to examine beauty. A tool of precision, the camera measures, slices and compares. It dissects and probes, focusing our attention according to an exact point of view. It’s a machine that feeds our obsession with fragments, those parts that are somehow greater than the whole. The camera quantifies the geometric proportions of beauty, turning the body into a landscape of flesh and blood. As Owen Edwards wrote, “it is in nudes that art and desire merge”, echoing the observation of Carol Squires, who wrote “the body is more than just flesh and bone. It is a cultural screen onto which we project a complicated assortment of ideas, fantasies, fears and desire”.
“The camera measures, slices and compares. It dissects and probes, focusing our attention according to an exact point of view. It’s a machine that feeds our obsession with fragments, those parts that are somehow greater than the whole.”
– Jon Ortner
BM: What other countries’ pin-up calendars do you admire and collect?
Nude pin-up calendars seem to be primarily an American obsession. But as they became more and more successful and prominent in our culture, especially during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, other countries started creating the same kind of nude, or at least sexy pin-up calendars. Few reached the quality and creativity that the American publishers did, but Great Britain, France, Japan and China jumped on board, and started to produce calendars patterned after the American ones. I have many of those in my collection, but decided to include only the best examples of the foreign ones in the book.
BM: Who do you rate as the greatest models, artists, photographers and printers of calendar pin-up art?
JO: Most of the beautiful women used in these calendars were aspiring models who went to Hollywood with hopes of becoming movie stars. Many of them were signed with the big studios, but the models that weren’t needed to make ends meet, so they did nude modelling, sometimes at night, on Hollywood studio movie sets that were closed. These models were often billed as the ‘Girl Next Door’ and many of them were exceptionally beautiful women that never became Hollywood stars. They are now, in the digital age, known and followed by huge audiences of collectors, not to mention people who just love the style and beauty of the calendars.
My favorite movie stars who modelled nude are of course Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Jean Harlow, Anita Ekberg, Diana Dors and Mamie van Doren. My favorite nude models that were relatively unknown, but became stars once their exceptional beauty became more well known, include Diane Webber, Evelyn West, Marilyn Waltz, Virginia De Lee, Joanne Arnold, Goldie Brewer, Sue Snow, June Wilkinson, Marilyn Dean, Elaine Reynolds, Ann Austin and Margie Harrison.
My favorite photographers that created these images were Tom Kelley, Carlyle Blackwell Jr., Peter Gowland, Theda and Emerson Hall, Lazlo Willinger, Bruno Bernard, John M. Shull and Tom Binford.
The best publishers were John Baumgarth Company, Brown & Bigalow, Kaiser & Blair, The George Washington Line, Superior/Eagle Line Company and Economy Blue Print and Supply Company.
BM: What other forms of pin-up do you collect?
JO: I also collect the 4” x 5” black and white nudes that were shot by camera club members, or those that were sold in the back of magazines, often listed as ‘Artists Models’. I hope to come out with a book of those images at some point in the future.
BM: Finally, what else besides pin-up art does such an avid collector collect?
JO: I also collect photography books, especially antiquarian nude photography books.
Calendar Girls: Sex Goddesses & Pin-Up Queens of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s by Jon Ortner is published by Schiffer.