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A Brief Story of Homoerotic Photography in America, Part I

A Brief Story of Homoerotic Photography in America, Part I

In the first of a two part series, we explore how LGBTQ artists created homoerotic photography when it was criminalized and the impact of the emerging Gay Liberation Movement.

It wasn’t until 2003 — nearly 40 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed — that the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) gave LGBTQ people their Constitutional rights, ruling in Lawrence v. Texas that intimate consensual conduct is a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. For the better part of American history, same-sex activity was treated as a crime to be persecuted under the law, for which citizens could be denied healthcare, housing, education, employment, and access across the board. 

Jim French (1932-2017), “Untitled (Man in Chair),” c. 1967-9 © Estate of Jim French, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City.

The American Psychiatric Association deemed it a pathology, dedicating more than 20 years to formalizing a language to describe and behaviors to treat what they erroneously deemed a form of mental illness until the egregious diagnosis was removed from the DSMIII-R in 1973. That same year, the Supreme Court modified its definition of obscenity in the landmark case Miller v. California from the of “utterly without socially redeeming value” to that which lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” providing protections to previously censored works of art and culture under the First Amendment. 

© The Alvin Baltrop Trust 

Much as same-sex activity was criminalized, so was any expression of — a practice dating back to the 1873 Comstock Laws, a set of federal acts for the “Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” which criminalized sending “obscene” materials, contraceptives, abortifacients, sex toys, personal letters with sexual content, or any information related to their topics through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). In brief, to be LGBTQ in America posed life-threatening risk.

Men in Showers Series – Plastic Series, Jean Eudes Canival, Paris, 1975 © The Estate and Archive of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos

The Young and the Evil

In 1933, poet Charles Henri Ford and critic Parker Tyler published a collaborative novel titled The Young and the Evil, the story of two genderqueer characters cavorting in New York’s gay underground. The book inspired a 2019 exhibition at David Zwirner of the same name curated by Jarrett Earnest, which presented a look into a collective of LGBTQ artists working in New York during this time including photographer George Platt Lynes (1907-1955). 

© Tom Bianchi, from Fire Island Pines. Polaroids 1975-1983 (Damiani)

One of the foremost photographers of his time, Lynes moved through circles of high society, fashion, and fine art. He photographed for everyone from Vogue to George Balanchine, but what he most loved were secret studies of the male nude, which he later sold to Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction to support his extravagant lifestyle. “He was hoping to elevate male nudes to fine art,” says gallerist Brian Paul Clamp.

Hal Fischer, ‘Street Fashion: Leather,’ from the series ‘Gay Semiotics’, 1977, in ‘Thought Pieces: 1970s Photographs by Lew Thomas, Donna- Lee Phillips, and Hal Fischer,’ (MACK, 2020). Courtesy SFMOMA and MACK.
Hal Fischer, ‘Sadism and Masochism,’ from the series ‘Gay Semiotics’, 1977, in ‘Thought Pieces: 1970s Photographs by Lew Thomas, Donna- Lee Phillips, and Hal Fischer,’ (MACK, 2020). Courtesy SFMOMA and MACK.

Before dying from lung cancer at the age of 48, Lynes destroyed his archive to protect those he had photographed, but the legend of his work lived on. Jarrett Earnest detailed how Lynes’ photographs were protected and preserved, passed between lovers and friends over the years. “Museums wouldn’t have wanted it,” he reveals.

George Platt Lynes (1907-1955), “Charles ‘Tex’ Smutney and Charles ‘Buddy’ Stanley III,” 1942 © Estate of George Platt Lynes, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City
George Platt Lynes (1907-1955), “José Pete Martinez with Hat and Flowers,” 1937 © Estate of George Platt Lynes, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

In 1981, Twelvetrees Press reintroduced works from the Kinsey collection in the seminal monograph George Platt Lynes Photographs 1931–1955, which would inspire a new generation of artists including Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber, and Herb Ritts to use the timeless allure of the male form to transgress the Puritanical restrictions of American culture during the height of AIDS.

Beauty and the Beef

While Lynes kept his homoerotic work tightly under wraps, taking great care not to scandalize his clients with “the love that not dare speak its name,” Bruce Bellas (1909–1974) moved to California, took the name Bruce of Los Angeles, and became a pioneer of physique photography alongside luminaries including Jim French (1932-2017) and Bob Mizer (1922-1992) who took great care to follow the letter of the law. 

As bodybuilding became a national pastime, these photographers found a way to market and sell beefcake to the masses so long as a carefully positioned posing strap prevented the depiction of full frontal nudity. Bruce of Los Angeles used Hollywood style lighting, models that looked like movie stars, and campy humor created his own brand of wholesome homoerotica that could be openly published, bought, and sold in physique magazines nationwide. 

Bruce of Los Angeles (1909-1974), “John Knight,” c. 1957 © Estate of Bruce of Los Angeles, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City.
Bruce of Los Angeles (1909-1974), “David Gregory,” c. 1974 © Estate of Bruce of Los Angeles, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

While Bruce took care to work the system rather than counter it, Mel Roberts (1923-2007) was politically active at a time when LGBTQ people were criminalized and harassed. A member of the Mattachine society, one of the earliest LGBTQ organizations, Clamp reveals, “Roberts lived openly as a gay man from very early on. He was cautious and understood the dangers; he knew he couldn’t have his film processed and would have to do that himself.” 

Mel Roberts (1923-2007), “Richard and Mike,” 1962 © Estate of Mel Roberts, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City.

Between the 1950s and 1961, Roberts made some 50,000 photographs celebrating the boy-next-door type. In 1963, he launched Young Physique magazine to publish his work — but in time he drew the ire of the Los Angeles Police Department numerous times later in his life, eventually driving him out of business until Rick Castro, the “King of Fetish,” rediscovered his work in 1996. 

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

After the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, the Gay Liberation Movement was born — a fight for civil rights that has taken the globe by storm. In the 1970s, a new era of LGBTQ artists sprang forth at a time when male full frontal nudity was primarily the provenance of pornographers. Established artists like Andy Warhol (1928-1987) began making a series of intimate Polaroids for a series titled Sex Parts and Torsos, but his Catholic upbringing was a source of struggle, and he kept the work hidden for years, often believing that, “I shouldn’t call them nudes,” he revealed in The Andy Warhol Diaries. “It should be something more artistic. Like ‘Landscapes’.”

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Sex Parts and Torsos, 1977 © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

But a new generation of artists coming of age including Antonio Lopez (1943-1987), Peter Hujar (1934-1987), Alvin Baltrop (1947-2004), Hal Fischer (b. 1950), and Tom Bianchi (b. 1945) had no such qualms and joyously celebrated the exquisite ecstasy of the male form. These artists, all based in New York, reveled in the outlaw spirit of the 1970s, capturing all the delicious decadence and joy de vivre at the dawn of the Gay Liberation Movement in the innocent, free spirited years before the devastating advent of AIDS. 

Couverture: © Tom Bianchi, de Fire Island Pines. Polaroids 1975-1983 (Damiani)

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

Books and Exhibitions:

Alvin Baltrop
Books include The Life and Times of Alvin Baltrop (Skira) and Alvin Baltrop: The Piers (TF Editores).

Tom Bianchi
Books include Fire Island Pines. Polaroids 1975-1983 and 63 E 9th Street. NYC Polaroids 1975 –1983 (Damiani).

Bruce of Los Angeles
Books include Bruce of Los Angeles: Inside/Outside (powerHouse Books), 

Hal Fischer
Books include Thought Pieces: 1970s Photographs by Lew Thomas, Donna-Lee Phillips, and Hal Fischer (MACK) and Hal Fischer: The Gay 70s (Gallery 16 Editions).

Jim French
Books include Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor: Jim French Polaroids (Antinous Press) and Jim French Diaries: The Creator of Colt Studio (Bruno Gmunder). 

Peter Hujar
Books include Peter Hujar: Speed of Life (Aperture) and Peter Hujar: Love and Lust (Fraenkel Gallery).

Antonio Lopez
Books include Instamatics (Twin Palms), Antonio Lopez: Fashion, Art, Sex, and Disco (Rizzoli), and Antonio’s People (Thames & Hudson).

George Platt Lynes
Books include George Platt Lynes (Taschen), George Platt Lynes: The Male Nudes (Rizzoli), and George Platt Lynes: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute (Bullfinch).

Mel Roberts
Books include The Wild Ones: The Erotic Photography of Mel Roberts (FotoFactory).

Andy Warhol
Selections from Sex Parts and Torsos can be seen in Andy Warhol Polaroids now on view online at Fotografiska New York.

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