A Brief History of the Male Nude in the USA
Among the earliest to popularize this new subject matter in photography were the Ritter Brothers of New York in the 1930s. These two handsome young men, who possessed exceptionally beautiful classic body lines, posed together naked in various athletic activities at a New York City YMCA and in sylvan outdoor settings. They took their own pictures, did their own darkroom work, and sold their pictures by mail as a means of earning a living during the Depression years (when a high quality 8x10 print cost $1.00.) As exponents of the new "physical culture" lifestyle being then promoted by publishing magnate Bernarr MacFadden and by their famous trainer Sig Klein, and others, Fred and William Ritter displayed an obvious pride and pleasure in their posing work as well as a keen artistic ability. Today, their original photographs are highly prized collector items. In 1930-1935 their studio address was at 14 West 40th Street, in a small office building, directly across the street from the New York Public Library.
Another New York cameraman working in the 1930s and 40s was Edwin F. Townsend, at 25 West 48th Street, an old brownstone which he used as a studio. He was a commercial and theatrical photographer whose male nudes of actors and athletes (most notably the great Tony Sansone) achieved wide acclaim. These very photos inspired a young man named Alonzo Hannagan to move to New York in the late '30s where he pursued his goal of creating images as beautiful and exciting as those of Sansone. By the mid 1940s "Lon of New York" was the top name in the physique field, supplying a steady flow of exquisite physique studies to the national bodybuilding magazines, and offering unretouched photos by mail order. Other important artists in the burgeoning East Coast group working out of New York were: Earl Forbes, Paul Gebbé (Robert Gebhart) and George Platt Lynes.
In the Central U.S., Al Urban, Jr. was making a name for himself in Chicago. He had originally started out in New York City then later moved. He billed himself as "America's leading Physique Photographer." In nearby Detroit, Douglas Juleff was creating outstanding work. His formal art training was evident in his brilliant lighting technique and composition. He worked in photo studios as a commercial retouching artist and even retouched his male nudes, enhancing then even further. No other photographer did this. These dramatic studies by "Douglas of Detroit" were often featured in Bob Hoffman's STRENGTH AND HEALTH, a leading bodybuilding magazine of the period.
Also by the mid 1940s a few fledgling photo studios were establishing a West Coast group based in Los Angeles. Here the pioneer was Bob Mizer's Athletic Model Guild. As the name suggests, this was started as an agency owned by 3 men who operated it for young male models seeking to pursue careers in the arts, commercial work and the movies. Then the ownership changed and Mizer took it over completely and ran it by himself. Mizer soon found there was more demand for his pictures than for the models so he put his energies into publishing and selling the photographs. His studio became a mecca for models and photographers alike. He knew and worked with all the major Los Angeles figures of this period including Ebersol, Kovert, Constantine (Spartan Studio) and Bruce Bellas (Bruce of Los Angeles.)
The late 1940s and early 1950s brought a proliferation of new studios offering male model studies. These included Ralph Kelly, Lyle, Frisby, Art Bob and Pat Milo, all in Southern California, and Dave Martin and Russ Warner in the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California. Warner's early artistic male nudes led to the work for which he became famous; physique contest action shots and publicity photos of professional bodybuilders published mainly in the "muscle magazines" of Joseph Weider which eventually popularized this art and sport for a mass audience. In Seattle, Jon C. Arnt who had begun his photographic career working for Boeing Aircraft during World War II and later established a commercial portrait studio, began to concentrate on physique photography. In the East, Don Young and Dick Lee established Eastern Model Associates, but soon went their seperate ways. Frank Collier, Rod Crowther, John Palatinus, Anthony Guyther (Guyther, Vulcan, Discus & Capital) and Spectrum Films of Cincinnati all appeared in the 1950s, as well as one of the most successful new studios, and virtually the only one operating between Chicago and Los Angeles: Don Whitman's Western Photography Guild in Denver, Colorado. Whitman brought a clean and classic look to his athletic young models posed alone and in dramatic duals against the natural splendor of the Rocky Mountains.
But the 1050s was a period of changing social values and repressive political and legal actions. It became known as the McCarthy Era. While publications had always required physique photography to artfully retouch nudes, or have the models wear quite minimal "posing straps," increasingly photographers were hounded and harassed for even offering to sell frontal nudes privately. The extroverted and individualistic war years had given way to an era of conservative (pronounced right-wing) conformity, and the combined actions of local, federal and postal authorities led to the investigation and persecution of many photographers whose works (which featured nudity but were not overtly erotic, and certainly were not pornographic) were deemed objectionable. Those artists who defied the laws and the climate, continuing to offer uncensored nudes, did so at great risk. Some photographers were arrested, their prints and negatives seized (and often destroyed), and their lives and livelihoods disrupted by witch hunt trials, many in Federal courts which in some cases led too severe fines and even imprisonment. Such was the puritanical atmosphere at the time that juries ruled the mere depiction of genitalia to be pornographic. Many careers were ruined, and many classic images (both prints and negatives) were irretrievably lost.
None the less, physique photography continued as a viable genre throughout the 1950s and '60s, which were in Fact the heyday of the "little magazines," a field which Bob Mizer's AMG Studio publication PHYSIQUE PICTORIAL helped to establish along with Joe Weider's "mini-mags," ADONIS and BODY BEAUTIFUL. Among those photographers and studios who made their mark in the 1960s were Neil Edwards, Jack Sidney, Champion (Take One, Master Physique, WalJim, T.H.E.M., Sunshine Beach Club & Champion), Chuck Renslow and Dom Orejudas' KRIS of Chicago, David of Cleveland, Troy Saxon in Kansas City & Bob Anthony, to name a few. Each of these artists perfected a "look" which added to the changing face of physique photography. The subtlety and sexual ambiguity of the past were giving way to even stronger portrayals of the body as subject, not merely giving way to even stronger portrayals of the body as subject, not merely object. From the gymnasts and athletes in Champion's photos to David of Cleveland's apartment-wrestlers, from Kris's butch bikers to the elaborately stylized Gay fantasies of James Bidgood's Les Follies Des Hommes (creator of the underground cult film classic "Pink Narcissus"), physique photography was changing its focus from models-as-living-statuary to models-as-fantasy-role-models.
These changes in style and taste, coupled with repressive legal threats, silenced some of the field's veteran artists, while others were discouraged by the increasing emphasis (despite the ban on nudity) on overt eroticism, as well as what may have seemed an apparent indifference to the artistic quality of the work being published.
Throughout this almost 20-year period a war was being fought between and liberal trends, and arrests and prosecutions continued. It wasn't until the late 1960s that this era of censorship was finally ended and reform took place. The U.S. Government tried and convicted a Washington, D.C. publisher, Dr. Lynn Womack, for selling "obscene matter" (i.e. male frontal nudes.) Dr. Womack published Grecian Guild Pictorial and other male magazines featuring complete nudes. But in Dr. Womack the authorities had picked a formidable adversary, and he was jailed. From his confinement he fought with a fury and spent a fortune directing his attorneys in an appeal that eventually led all the way to the United States Supreme Court. After consenting to hear the case, the Supreme Court overturned all previous denials of the Womack appeals and ruled in his favor. The 1968 Womack decision became a landmark case, limiting the censorship of free expression and ruling that mere nudity was not obscene. Womack's favorable verdict actually gave every photographer in the country a Bill of Rights for freedom of expression under the First Amendment which previously never existed. This had far-reaching effects on the entire country and brought about a new freedom in pictorial representation in all areas.
While there are many people, even today, who would argue that this Pandora's Box should never have been opened, there would be few artists among them. Those who appreciate the male nude as a thing of natural beauty and invigorating inspiration will realize that the right to portray and esteem this most fundamental image should not be taken for granted. Constitutional protections are not always self-evident and are under constant threat of erosion and amendment. Artists and individuals like those who suffered and fought for the freedom of expression enjoyed today must be ever vigilant!
San Francisco, July 1996
Nikos Makros by Champion