I had no affiliation with Playboy in my youth. I knew it existed and I saw it on top of my friend's brother's toilet once but it's not like my dad got it or my brother hid it. So coming to it with little cultural background I find it kind of fascinating as a publication (here is an interview I did with Steven Watts, who wrote a biography of Hugh Hefner), the change in roles it's played over the decades. It didn't hurt that for ten years I worked in the same building that it was published. My good friend Jessica worked there for a while and displayed prints from work in her home. The ones she chose were dreamily-lit and sultry, more like nude paintings than erotica. She had coffee table books of the centerfolds too and it was fascinating to compare them all throughout the decades.
Over the weekend Jessica posted on Facebook this site of every single Playboy nude centerfold (obviously, NSFW) since its inception. [2017 Dead Hef update: the images seem to have been taken down but you can find most if not all of them now here.] I decided to look at every single one of them. I would like to flaunt, for the first time in my life, that I minored in art history at Georgetown, so that you know I did this for the sake of the academy.
It's really fascinating to go through them all, if it doesn't make you feel weird (I feel like the world is a much scarier and more offensive place than Playboy centerfolds.) The ones from the 1950's and 1960's are so charming and playful. They tell a story and are really art-directed. The 60's and early '70's are just gorgeous--the women are lit beautifully and while the photos aren't as cutesy (snowy night, stuck indoors!) they're more natural in a traditional sense--just beautiful nudes who look like women who might have a reason to be nude.
It's around the mid-late '80's that the photos really started feeling more like porn than just "nudes." It's not just the now-mandatory lower-body nudity Gone are the "scenes" or any pretense for nudity. The women are much more brightly lit, closer up, and featuring a face that we recognize now as the dead-eyed open-mouthed sex face. Definitely no glimmer in her eye or sexy smile. It's just more like "Uh. Come at me."
From then on we enter a long, unfortunate period that is tedious if you like art direction but great if you like backlight blah blondes. Not only is the idea of the "scene" gone but so is any idea of a striptease. There are many shoots where you wonder why the models weren't just nude instead of wearing what is basically a string around their waist (maybe this is why I make for such a terrible heterosexual man.) There's even one photo where a girl's socks are half-socks because obviously full-on socks leave too much to the imagination. But morevoer there's just no variety or cleverness or joy in the photos. You see some changes in preferences re: tattoos and personal grooming but they're all pretty much the same: just a bunch of naked robots.
Finally, around 2013 or 2014 do the images seem to match the times a bit. The editors seem to have confidence that a woman doesn't need to show her fallopian tubes to be sexy. Natural light is welcomed back--and some of the images even look rather high fashion. The life of Playboy centerfolds as we know it ends strangely though, with Miss February 2016 smoking a cigarette. What an odd image to go out on--I only noticed one or two cigarettes in the previous images, back from the '50's and '60's. And the 2016 cigarette is not even a cigarette that makes sense--it doesn't look like she just, um, did something that would make you want to have a cigarette. She's just laying on a hardwood floor. It's so strange how the Playboy centerfold evolved from a girl relatively wholesome and flirty to new and different definitions of "dirty" only to end on one that is kind of objectively dirty.
Other stray observations:
- Miss September 1954 looks like the cover of a children's Christmas book.
- Somebody should have fixed Jayne Mansfield's toes in February 1955.
- September 1955 might be my favorite cover of them all.
- September 1956 makes me hope those were fake flowers.
- I love January 1958 for the little scene that it sets. It's sexy and clever and a neat choice for the time of year.
- July 1959 looks like she should just be put to bed.
- Many photos feature hats. Very few of them work.
- More photos than necessary feature women with toys, dolls, and stuffed animals.
- 1966 might be the best year.
- The late '70's and '80's was an era of one shoe on/one shoe off and inexplicable slutty Victorian wear: a lot of lace and high necks and buttoned boots.
- 1986 is the most '80's year.
- A couple of the models carry purses. It reminds me of when Queen Elizabeth carries a purse.
- December 1997 is the first centerfold in decades that's remotely cute or clever or playful.
- A lot of the women through the decades are doing a pose that looks like they're about to tie their shirts around their waist.
- April 2005. I have no idea what is going on in this photo.
- October 2010: I know I'm biased because of her name but I like Claire Sinclair's spread for being so cutely retro.
- March 2013: Why would you combine those two things?