Thursday, May 19, 2011

So Straight It's Gay - Retro Metro in the Pages of Physique Pictorial

The retro Physique Pictorial style really appeals to me, for some reason.  Basically (forgive the paraphrasing), a closet case budding photographer named Bob Mizer created a company in 1945 by the name of Athletic Model Guild as a means to legally market photos of nude men...some of the earliest gay pornography that was widely produced and distributed anywhere.
Bob's early models were guys he met in/around Los Angeles.  After WWII, many single young guys returned from the war and had aspirations of stardom.  Finding themselves in LA with slim chances of making it big in pictures, a growing number turned to modeling as a means to make a quick buck capitalizing on their youth and good looks.

Today, many people look at the cheesy sets and props of Physique Pictorial as some sort of campy joke.  In the 1940's the double standard made male frontal nudity illegal.  Physiqe Pictorial and other publications of its kind used the cheesy props and sets to create a facade of fine art photography and filled the pages with exercise "demonstrations" including weightlifting and wrestling, bodybuilding poses, stories, drawings and biographical material and interviews with the guys pictured.

Many of the shoots were done in Bob's back yard and the homes of friends.  Physique Pictorial magazine had ads selling photo prints of shoots and later films of various scenes (elaborated upon) from the pages of the magazine.  Despite the veneer of propriety, Bob and Physique Pictorial still faced various legal challenges over the years, but managed to pass his legacy on through licensing various pieces of the collection for republication in art books.  Several of the films have also since been converted to video and sold as compilations in recent years.

So what do I dig about Physique Pictorial?
Sheer exploitation of young muscle dudes, for starters.  Depending on which stories you believe, Bob was either the "sweet eccentric queer uncle" or the "lecherous slimy porn-monger" and everything in between, yet no matter how you slice it, he still managed (by hook or by crook) to get some of the hottest young pieces of meat to pose for him.  Bob created AMG during the perfect storm of masculinity - when battle hardened young men were returning to civilian life in droves, in search of further adventures and ready to grab life by the balls (and tug!).

Postwar peace and American prosperity also led to an almost universal appetite for all things American, including our beefcake and heart-throbs, and as mainstream films and publications spread around the world infectiously, so too did the less-than-mainstream creations like Physique Pictorial.  This represents the free-market system and capitalist ideals at their best and most innovative.  Think how easy it is to begin a porn operation today, by comparison, with all the tools and technology at our finger tips...

I also like Bob's efforts to maintain propriety.  He wasn't going to spend too much time or money making a big production - he just needed the bare minimum to get by.  The thinnest of plots strung together scenes of men ogling and oiling each other, grappling and sword fighting (swords!).  A common theme was that of photographer (or artist) and subject, where one hot guy has another hot guy in his studio, but has to show him how to pose, going so far as to remove his own clothes and oiling up his body in the process (what some will do for their art!) and physically demonstrating various poses.

There was also the clean-cut post-war leading man aesthetic that was the earnest aspiration of Bob to portray in each and every model he shot.  The intention is obvious, even in the complete failure of its realization.  Joe Dallessandro above (Andy Warhol model and later actor) might have tried to fit that profile as a green muscular guy fresh off the bus in Hollywood (leading men don't grease their hair or have tattoos!), but eventually got much more indie and edgy than even Bob might've predicted at the time.

Then there's the obvious:  Bob's scenarios often dabbled in bondage (ropes AND chains), powerplay (wrasslin, master vs. slave, hazing), and various forms of costumery - jocks, leather daddies and boys, soldiers and sailors (some of them really soldiers and sailors!), gladiators, cowboys, etc.  There were muscle worship, enslavement, imprisonment and corporal punishment scenes galore, and some of the earliest publications of Tom of Finland's (hot, Hot, HOT) work served as "filler" between photo sets.
If I were around in the '40s, '50s or '60s, I probably would have been getting Physique Pictorial (or any of its various spin-offs) delivered to my door, and if you're a regular fan of this blog, you probably would too.


OH, and he's in the news lately because of his separation and the "revelation" of his infidelity, but what California Governor do you think had one of his earliest paying gigs with Physique Pictorial back in the day? (1975)

Need a hint?  
"I'll be back!" - with a thick Austrian accent

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