Mark Owen

Irving Klaw and the bondage photo trade

Irving Klaw was a New York businessman who by chance stumbled onto a strange goldmine. Klaw was born in Brooklyn on November 9, 1911 and grew up in a home where money was always scarce. His father died while he was still in high school and Irving went out to earn a living. Eventually he opened a small bookstore at 209 East 14th Street, Lower Manhattan, which he operated during the 1930s. The store also sold another line of merchandise that was extremely popular - photographs of movie stars and scenes from movies.

The Depression era was a time when movies boomed and with them the demand for such photographs.

Irving Klaw discovered in time that his photographic sales far outstripped those of books, so he gave up selling the latter and in 1939 moved into a new store on the other side of the road, at 212 East 14th. A sign above the store read 'Irving Klaw Pin-Up Photos' and Klaw advertised that he sold 'Pin-up photos of your favourite movie stars, latest movie scenes, bathing beauties, popular cowboy stars and vocalists, bandleaders.' This latter statement was still on the building as late as the late 1970s when the store was trading as Movie Star News.

After the war Klaw's business boomed. In running it he was assisted by his sister Paula and her husband Jack Kramer. It was during this period that Irving Klaw noted that photographs taken from movies in which the attractive female stars were bound or chained and/or gagged in some manner outsold most other scenes. Many movies, e.g. westerns, pirate stories, stories of Arab harems, often included such scenes and provided a ready source of prints snapped up by buyers.

One particular customer, a wealthy businessman, bought many of Irving's pictures but was only interested in ones in which the movie actress was bound. On one occasion this man was talking with Irving and came up with a suggestion. He would provide the cash and pay both for the models and the photography to produce bondage photographs, preferably with the girls gagged as well as bound. All he sought in return was to do the tying (the girls were usually clothed or at least in underwear) and to have one set of photographs from each session for himself.

The year was 1947 and soon the new project was under way, Irving Klaw being assisted by his business partner - his own sister, Paula. The models were organized by a photographer and willing females were soon found from among the tribe of strippers and stage girls always needing work - and funds - in New York. From all accounts the girls never felt frightened or upset by this work; most came back for further sessions.

It was not long before Irving Klaw realized he was on a winner. As it happened neither he nor his sister were turned on by bondage but being a smart businessman and good at the mail-order business, Klaw knew he had stumbled upon a surefire business venture. Soon an upstairs floor was being rented and set up as a photographic studio for regular Saturday sessions. There now began a long saga involving the production of carefully staged and photographed bondage scenes.

At first an outside photographer was hired but later they handled the photography themselves. The models were attractive and were well paid for that era and were also well treated. They were even taken to dinner after the photographic sessions. Throughout the years the photographs were taken of the girls either clothed or, more often, in lingerie, usually wearing high-heeled shoes. There was no nudity, not even bare breasts. Occasionally leather garments featured.

Paula Klaw supervised the actual bondage and made sure the bindings looked authentic. She later commented that she was quite certain when she had finished binding them that they could not escape their bonds without assistance. The pair believed it was important to make the photos look realistic. (This is a gross failing in many bondage publications.) The models happily undertook their work and never objected to being bound in awkward positions. Some of the regular models became well known to buyers, one in particular, Bettie Page, a very attractive young lady, becoming quite famous in B & D circles.

Eventually the bondage photo and book business was separated from the main store and established in New Jersey under the now famous name, Nutrix Co., and numerous ads were inserted in popular magazines describing the photos as being of 'damsels in distress' or 'fighting girls' or referring to spanking or chastisement of college girls. The response was enormous, proving there was then - as now - a real demand in the community for such material.

The very first model was Lilli Dawn, a professional stripper. She was featured in what is now believed to be the first known commercial bondage photo, taken in 1947. The girl, of somewhat ample proportions, appears in black corset, stockings and suspender belt, on tiptoe in high-heel shoes, arms stretched above her head in long black leather gloves, hands bound together and a cloth gag in her mouth. In those days no photo went out showing pubic hair or bare breasts.

Later the most famous model of them all entered the studio - Bettie Page. Aged then about 23, Betty worked away at many photo sessions for a period of two years and some of Irving Klaw's best photos featured her. One, actually conceived by Paula, who tied Betty in place and then photographed her, became the firm's biggest seller of all time.

Betty, a very good-looking dark-haired girl, was in a bra and very brief (for that era) panties, black stockings and high-heeled shoes. She stood facing the camera, her legs bound together in two places, while another rope was tied VERY tightly about her waist and went to posts at either side. Her arms were stretched outwards and upwards tightly, while another rope ran from a knot in her hair to a hook above and she was gagged. It was a position of complete immobilization. In time whole photo-books were devoted to Bettie Page.

Other popular photographs featured the hogtied position, a great favourite of bondage aficionados, known in France as craupadine, where the bound ankles and bound wrists are tied together behind the back. It is amusing to see many YouTube videos today in which young girls rope or tape each other up in hogties in a competition called a Ninja Challenge to see who can get free fastest. 

There were numerous other popular scenes, doubtless invented by Paula and Irving, most quite familiar today and featured widely in publications, but more often with the girls wearing fewer clothes! Props included a ball-and-chain, crosses, upright poles, rods attached to ankles, and a cangue (a board with a hole for head and separate holes for hands, popular as a punishment in China).

In all during this period some 4,000 black and white and colour photographs were produced. From Nutrix were issued not only the large range of photographs but various publications, including photo story books and books featuring comic strips of bound beauties. However, trouble was brewing. The Moral Minority was stirring and throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s the US Federal authorities, using the iniquitous laws governing what is sent through the mails, began causing trouble. Then in June 1963 Irving Klaw and Jack Kramer were indicted, charged with sending 'obscene' materials through the postal system.

They were found guilty but an appeal to the Federal Court of Appeals was successful. However, by now Klaw had tired of the long battle with the wowser opposition and in an unhappy frame of mind destroyed all his negatives. It was a dark day for freedom of expression in the USA. Soon after this Klaw's wife died and just three years later, in September 1966, Klaw himself died. He was not an old man but his demise had probably been hastened by the years of strain fighting the puritans.

Fortunately a great number of the famous Irving Klaw images have been preserved, as copies have been made from the excellent prints (many of the originals were made on large press-type cameras) sold by Klaw. These appear from time to time in various publications. For some years after Irving Klaw's death his sister Paula continued to run the original photo store.

A gigantic storehouse of photographic memorabilia - The Movie Star News Collection - recently went up for sale in the USA. The collection went back to 1939. Included in the images are most of the great and sought-after stars. There were 600 images of Marilyn Monroe alone. And, lf course, those of the pin-up favourite Bettie Page, who became known as The Queen of Pinups. Bettie did many straight glamour shoots as well as bondage ones.

Mark Owen, 1991 -