I believe that history has shape, order, and meaning; that exceptional men, as much as economic forces, produce change; and that passé abstractions like beauty, nobility, and greatness have a shifting but continuing validity.—Camille Paglia
Passé. Nudes are passé. At least, that’s the story according to Playboy® magazine’s recently-appointed chief content officer Cory Jones. The magazine announced that this past week that it is initiating a complete re-design and re-branding, beginning with the March 2016 issue. Jones said, as part of the announcement, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.” And with that, every male, and more than a few females, around the world sighed the deepest of sighs. There’s no arguing with the prevalence of nudity and porn on the Internet. And yes, it does make the current content of the magazine passé. Such wasn’t always the case, though, and that it is now is partly Playboy’s own fault.
Before I totally give in to ranting and raving, which I have a whole week to do, let’s be very clear about a few facts surrounding the magazine’s decision. First, what you see on the newsstands today is not Hugh Hefner’s magazine and hasn’t been for quite some time. Hef turned control of the magazine over to his daughter, Christie, in 1988 after he suffered a stroke in 1985. So, if you didn’t turn 18 until sometime after that date, you’ve not seen the magazine as it appeared under Hef’s control. Christie started making changes immediately and continued trying to keep the general content of the magazine moving forward until she stepped down in 2008, but even under her, the quality of the nudes suffered.
The magazine has been totally out of family control since earlier this year, and while Hef ostensibly has “approved” the change, his physical and mental condition has deteriorated to the point that one can legitimately question whether he really has a true concept of what’s taking place. The magazine’s website eliminated nudes over a year ago, which may be more understandable given the online competition, but then, the web version never has been anything more than a shadow of what the magazine was under Hef. One might even go back to Christie’s decision to move into video as the beginning of the decline.
Here’s the rub: poor quality nudes, such as what have appeared in the magazine for the past twenty years, have always been passé. Part of what made Playboy® the magazine it was under Hef’s control was the quality of its nudes. Not just anyone could shoot for the magazine and get their work published. Consider the list of photographers who once shot for the magazine. Arny Freytag, Pompeo Posar, Suze Randall, Mario Casilli, Herb Ritts, and most notably, Helmut Newton. The people who were behind the camera for the magazine during its heyday, who were responsible for its definitive look, were not hacks, but well-respected photographers with significant careers outside the magazine.
What happened? Expediency took the place of quality. Video was new and flashy and those early VHS tapes didn’t have to be good to sell well. Before long, the quality that had built the empire was completely gone. Never mind that attitudes about nudes and sexuality were changing, the photography by the mid-1990s came nowhere near the artistry that had existed before. Photoshop® and post-editing took over, lighting and creative posing and staging, which can be expensive, took a back seat. Models began looking more and more plastic.
So yes, the nudes that have appeared in Playboy® magazine the past 20 years are incredibly passé and changing that is a good thing. However, eliminating nudes completely is the easy way out. By going with a more glamour-oriented photography style, the magazine puts itself more in competition with titles such as GQ and Esquire. There, too, they will struggle if the quality of their photography doesn’t improve, and there’s no indication that it will.
Great nude photography will never be passé. However, mediocre magazines always will, and that’s exactly where Playboy® has landed, a fact that makes us all very sad.