From pretence to a stolen moment of intimacy
Having fascinated artists since ancient times, sleep was one of the earliest subjects in staged photography. From the late 18th century, there was a growing interest by scientists and writers in the unconscious and in the phenomenon of dreams, often represented in paintings and engravings. However, for photographers, the sleeping pose also offered a compromise within the constraints of the medium: confronted with a lengthy exposure time (gradually reduced from several minutes to a few seconds), this pose at times offered a strategy for keeping the model still, and thus avoiding any blurring caused by movements of the body or eyelids. But because the process of taking a photograph, always cumbersome in spite of technological advances, remained difficult to carry out without the model being aware of it, photographing someone asleep – apart from newborn babies and animals - was simulated.
The arrival of the snapshot in the 1880s brought an end to this period of ambiguity. A figure genuinely asleep, and captured with a new note of spontaneity and freedom, inspired tenderness and benevolence in the photographer who, at the same time, dispensed with the traditional moralising symbolism. Neither a proof of laziness nor a guarantee of innocence, sleep could be presented for what it was: a privilege of bourgeois idleness, a rest from hard labour, a refuge for the destitute. The new photographers thus confirmed the medium's ability to bring out the cultural and social implications of the natural and universal need for sleep.
Reflecting high society's taste for tableaux vivants, staged photography often exploited the poetic or comic aspect of the sleeping figure. This wave of sleepiness even reached the models of the fashionable portrait photographers who, thanks to the appearance of the visiting card format (quite affordable for the middle classes), would adopt the somnolent pose as one of the conventions of the studio fantasy scenes.
Having enabled the medium to show that, far from being just a tool for recording, photography could be a vehicle for the imagination, sleep also became a favourite theme of photographers harbouring artistic ambitions. Inspired by both painting and the theatre, their compositions went beyond the physiological to evoke the inner world of the model. They worked by alluding to the intimate experience of a dream, going through the looking glass, according to Lewis Carroll, opening a door to the unconscious, according to Freud. Nude photography, part of a long pictorial tradition, did not however fail to exploit the erotic potential of the motif of the sleeping beauty who remains unaware of the gaze of the spectator-voyeur.
Influenced by the removal of the narrative context, and after a few ventures into an irrational world where the sleeper appears within a dreamlike setting, photographers started to omit the sleeping figure, retaining only the mental image. Consequently, when seen through the filter of Pictorialist oneirism, the persistent appearance of the figure becomes almost an image within an image, and the descendants of the sleeping Venuses now the embodiment of the author's and/or spectator's dream.