The coffee table book as we now know it is generally deemed to have been conceived in 1960 by David R. Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club. Brower came up with the concept while looking for a way to publish nature photography on “a page size big enough to carry a given image’s dynamic.” His vision would eventually become This is the American Earth, a photo series by Ansel Adams.
Market interest in the concept of a coffee table book remained decidedly staid until 1992, when Madonna changed the entire genre with her then (and still) provocative Sex, which would go on to become the best-selling coffee table book of all time.
An apt, simplistic title, Sex proved that you didn’t need to showcase “sophisticated” subject matter in order to attract interest, sales and a shit ton of buzz. The concept behind the project came (no pun intended) about in either one of the following two ways, depending on who you ask and their opinion of Madonna:
1. The idea for an erotic photography book came from Judith Regan, editor at Simon & Schuster, who personally approached Madonna and her manager Freddy DeMann;
2. Madonna imagined the alternate erotic universe herself around the time she was filming A League of Their Own in 1991.
Whatever the real story, Sex would go on to sell 150,000 copies and continues to be one of the most sought-after out-of-print books of all time.
Photographed by Steven Meisel, Sex was a challenging book to create in terms of production, requiring resources from a number of publishing houses and printing presses. As is usually the case, being Madonna paid off in terms of getting the book packaged the way she wanted. The spiral-bound 128-page photo-essay was sealed in a Mylar bag (Madonna originally wanted it to resemble a condom wrapper, but that proved too expensive), with the book cover made out of aluminum. In Sex, Madonna takes on the persona of Mistress Dita, a reference to German film actress Dita Parlo, and explores taboos that are still considered anathema. Sex addresses everything from S&M and gay porn to pedophilia and gerontophilia, with cameos from celebrities like Naomi Campbell, Big Daddy Kane and Vanilla Ice (very telling of how ‘90s the book is).
Sex’s unprecedented design and content caused trepidation about its commercial viability, but it was its critical reception that Madonna's handlers should have been more concerned about. Released on the heels of Erotica, one of the singer's worst-received albums, Sex fueled a backlash that Madonna had as of yet not encountered. Deemed as having "gone too far" even by publications like Entertainment Weekly, it seemed the pop icon was, for the first time, overexposed. That it was her literary prowess that caused this was nothing if not ironic.
Genna Rivieccio graduated with a degree in screenwriting and closely identifies with Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. She has written for pop culture blogs, including Culled Culture, The Toast and Behind the Hype, as well as satire for Missing a Dick and The Burning Bush.
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