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In an Era of Ubiquitous Free Porn, Some Men Are Paying $40 for Polaroid Nudes on Etsy

Ryan* was recently shot in the leg by a would-be robber in Memphis, earning him the self-appointed distinction of “an even less talented 34-year-old Larry Flynt.” (Flynt, the patriarch of the Hustler empire, was paralyzed in 1978 by serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin.) The Etsy purveyor took his confinement as an opportunity to buy a Fujifilm camera and begin photographing nude models. (The real Larry Flynt bought a gold-plated wheelchair.)

Given the ubiquity of free porn online, it’s counterintuitive that people are buying Ryan’s instant photos for anywhere from $6.99 to $40. Especially since, aside from censored nipples, they’re viewable in their listing. His customers must know about PornHub, but apparently they’re jaded by the amount of pornography so easily available to them there and on similar tube sites. They’re seeking out something a bit more special.

In fact, when Ryan researched the top erotica sellers in the Fine Art section of eBay he found the same four letters over and over again: OOAK.

One of a kind.

“Even if [a Polaroid] that’s for sale on eBay wasn’t made for them, [customers] get the sense that it was,” says Mark Lee Rotenberg, who has one of the most comprehensive erotica collections in the country — he’s published two books of his collection with Taschen, contributed to many others and curated exhibits at the Museum of Sex. “There’s an immediacy, and an intimacy that comes from that kind of image.” For older customers, it recalls the photos of a past girlfriend they might have once stashed under their mattress. For a younger crop, who can buy their own Polaroid camera at Urban Outfitters, it has the frisson of hipness.

“I might have thought that the web would’ve beaten the hell out of the vintage stuff and the value of it, but that’s not the case at all,” says Rotenberg, whose business and primary source of income is run from a Mac desktop where he operates his online store Vintage Nude Photos.

The genesis of Rotenberg’s collection was a very specific urban nightmare: the death of his packrat Brooklyn Heights neighbor that went unnoticed for three months. “His 12 cats had died having eaten him,” Rotenberg explains. “Brooklyn Heights stank of nauseating death for two weeks.” The silver lining to all of that stench: Rotenberg’s first 1,500 photos had been unceremoniously deposited by city workers in the dumpster outside the dead man’s brownstone in the early 1980s. Now, the Rotenberg Collection includes roughly 120,000 photographs (instant and not) as well as other forms of tangible erotica.

“You could flood rivers with all the cum that’s squirt during the course of a day while people watch this,” Rotenberg says, gesturing toward the computer. “But my customers want the book; they want the magazine. There’s a sense of ownership. There’s a sense of a relationship.”

“A lot of these people want a connection,” says photographer Mona Weeks, who, when she needed some extra cash, began listing erotic Polaroids of herself on Etsy and advertising the store on Instagram. “A lot of people kept up conversations with me, especially on Instagram. They would ask for pictures, but they seemed to want to talk to somebody. I actually started to feel like it was kind of a counseling situation.”

The desire for connection is one Ryan is familiar with. “You can’t just watch videos anymore; you have to have some sort of interaction. I’m guilty of that myself. I’ve paid for webcam stuff before. I still go to the strip club every once in a while.” The women who model for him write personal letters to the recipients of their snapshots. As proof that everything that’s old is new again, Rotenberg shows me similar letters from mail-order erotica in the first half of the 20th century.

Some sellers and customers are also fans of the natural beauty standards of bygone eras. Rotenberg prefers to focus his collection on photographs pre-1965. He acknowledges that in buying vintage pornography, there’s no way of knowing whether someone posed willingly or how they were compensated. Today, the subject must be over 18, and copyright, privacy and anti-harassment laws protect models from images being disseminated without their permission in most of the country. All of this context is obviously stripped from an old photograph, but Rotenberg avoids materials from the 1980s and 1990s precisely for what he can know about this period.

“Women were abused [in the ‘80s and ‘90s],” he explains. “They were more objectified sexually than they’d ever been. Plenty of people would probably disagree with me, but I’ve seen the gamut of what’s been produced — women were being butchered surgically [with breast implants] for some fabricated market among the men.”

The creators of the blog Retrofucking agree in principle, even though their site is more focused on material from 1960 to 1989, or what they call the “Golden Age of Porn.” (Unfortunately, since I interviewed them, the blog, which had been subject to copyright complaints before, has been deactivated, though it’s cached around Tumblr.) They look to erotica as a source of “the music, fashion, architecture, technology and overall design of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.” Their blog’s popularity reinforces the idea that erotica aficionados are eager to wed the intimacy of analog pornography to the internet’s vast reach.

“One could argue that our blog is a hybrid of both the analog and digital worlds, in that we’re re-contextualizing the images by taking them out of the pages of a magazine and cropping them to best display within the confines of the Tumblr template,” the creators tell me.

After all, we’ve long perfected the best of both worlds with other forms of entertainment: “One might listen to The Beatles on iTunes,” the Retrofucking founders continue, “but they also buy the vinyl version to display on their shelf — out of respect.”