What We See
Photography changes our fantasies and desires
Hugh Hefner, founder, editor-in-chief, and chief creative officer of Playboy, writes about photography’s role in the success and impact of his magazine.
The first issue of Playboy was published in December 1953 and from the start, Playboy was different: a lifestyle magazine with interests in fashion, food, drink, furniture, design, cars, sports, and romance, while most men’s magazines after WWII were still built around outdoor and adventure subject matter. What made the magazine successful from the very first issue was the nude photograph of Marilyn Monroe, shot by Tom Kelley, which I licensed from the John Baumgarth Calendar Company for $500. It was a very good buy for me. While many people had heard about the nude photo of Monroe—and some had seen an altered version that had a negligee printed on top of her nude image—few had seen the un-retouched photograph.
Since the invention of photography, photographs of nudes have always attracted attention. At Playboy, we introduced the “Playmate of the Month” with the very first issue, and by the end of our first year we were shooting the feature in-house, with a girl next door approach. My art director wanted to do “artistic” studies—nudes photographed against a blank wall—which I was not interested in. I wanted the photographs, in addition to showing a nude figure, to suggest a man’s presence and a narrative. In the first “Playmate” feature we shot ourselves, the model (a secretary at Playboy, credited as “Janet Pilgrim”) appeared to be looking into a mirror as she was getting ready at a dressing table. In the background of the image was an unidentified man (who was me), dressed in a tuxedo, and seen with his back turned. Subsequent “Playmate” photographic features, whatever situation we depicted, always suggested the presence of a man, by including something like a necktie or two drinks in the shot.
Prior to Playboy, acceptable nude photographs were presented either as “art” studies or as something cultish like pictures of nudists throwing balls at each other. The “Playmate of the Month” features broke the tradition and created situations with some erotic implications. What I was trying to do, in a not too subtle way, was say that nice girls like sex, too—at a time when most men’s magazines only ran stories about sex that had to do with sin and sensationalism.
Response to the first issue was overwhelmingly positive except for the Post Office—which tried to refuse us a second class mailing permit, and who we took to court, won against, and effectively took out of the censorship business. At the time, there weren’t large-scale, organized groups pressing for censorship—or influencing presidential elections, advertising, and the media, for that matter—as there would be starting in the 1980s. Things were beginning to change in the 1950s, even though it was a very conservative decade. What you see in Playboy, the rise of rock-and-roll and in nightclub acts like Lenny Bruce’s, is the beginning of an underground culture that only became full-blown in the mid-1960s. I wasn’t single-mindedly trying to test social conventions, I was trying to produce a sophisticated men’s magazine. There was nudity in the pictorial features and in our cartoons. The stories we published were by top writers who were not afraid to push the limits.
This first issue of Playboy, with its Monroe pictures, represents the beginning of a shift in cultural values. Back in the mid-1940s, a notorious still photograph taken accidentally or surreptitiously of Carmen Miranda, which showed her without underwear, almost ruined her film career. Ten years later, when Marilyn Monroe’s nude photo surfaced and then appeared in Playboy, her response was: “All I had on was the radio.” The picture didn’t destroy her career, it helped make it. In fact, in 1955 when Jane Mansfield was put under contract at 20th Century Fox, the same studio Carmen Miranda worked for, they arranged for a semi-nude pictorial in Playboy once they saw the impact similar pictures had on the Marilyn Monroe’s career.
Fast forward to the present—when explicit videos of celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton circulate freely, as major corporate hotel chains routinely offer customers hard-core pay-for-view programming, and the government responds repressively to the sight of Janet Jackson’s breast exposed during a 2004 Super Bowl broadcast performance—all of which shows that in America, we still live in a very conflicted, schizophrenic society when it comes to sexual images.
- First Cover of Playboy, 1953