In the Twenty First Century, probably around the time that men are restricted by law to the occupations of handyman and strippergrams, it will be agreed that the image which summed up the end of the Twentieth was not the fall of the Berlin Wall, nor the death of Diana, but a close up of a man’s naked bottom.
And who today can deny that the Twentieth Century is ending on a bum note? Turn on the TV any time after 9pm and you will certainly be faced with several pairs of naked male buttocks, shiny and slick with baby oil, being jiggled to the strains of Donna Summer in yet another documentary about working class Northern men with fake tans forming a male strip troupe to help pay for their gym membership.
The uncovered male derriere is the most eloquent symbol of our times, representing the rise of the Rabblesian over the suburban, the expressive over the repressive, the feminine over the masculine — and the rosy financial future of Immac For Men.
It wasn’t always this way. Before housewives were encouraged to bellow ‘gerremorff!’ (and that’s just during the ad breaks) such images were strictly for a specialised niche market that had little to do with women and even less to do with consumerism. They were at best bohemian, at worst degenerate.
The cover image for David Leddick’s Naked Men: Pioneering Male Nudes 1935-1955, of a naked, muscular young male photographed from behind with his open hands resting saucily on his buttocks, might be almost a cliché today — though perhaps he should be bending over and shimmying down a pair of spangly knickers — but when it was taken in the fifties it was intended for private collectors, not the latest advertising campaign for Levi’s or Haagen Daaz.
Now that oggling men is in the mainstream several pioneers of male nudity have been ‘outed’ by publishers. Last year Bob Mizer’s famous Athletic Model Guild work from the forties, fifties, and sixties, was published in one painfully loud and proud pink boxed set decorated with Tom of Finland drawings. The same year saw the publication of Physique a life of the eccentric British male nude photographer John S. Barrington by Rupert Smith. Meanwhile, David Leddick confesses that the inspiration for his book was Collaboration, a recently published book about the male nude drawings and photos of Paul Cadmus, Jared and Margaret French.
Leddick’s innovation in the crowded pioneering male nudes market is to make his book a biography of the pioneering male nudes themselves, answering that vague question that poses itself in the back of the mind when looking at old pictures of beautiful young men: ‘I wonder what they look like now?’, by tracking down Platt Lynes’ surviving models and photographing what’s left of them.
Like most vague questions it’s one that’s probably best left unanswered, as is demonstrated by The Gap’s recent advertising campaign featuring a contemporary Joe Dallesandro, the famously angelic devil who posed for Bob Mizer and Andy Warhol in the Sixties and whose torso adorns the first Smiths album, but who now looks like a truck-driver with ulcers. True, the pictures of the young men have a certain poignancy when placed alongside an inset headshot of the young man grown old; and, reciprocally, there’s a certain dignity revealed in old age too. However, while the ephemeral nature of male beauty is undoubtedly part of it’s appeal, you need to be able to suspend disbelief in the immortality of such beauty to fully appreciate it; a disavowal not exactly helped by seeing precisely what Time had in store for them.
On the other hand, if the contemporary pictures were nudes instead of discreet headshots the effect would have been more provocative and less precious. Two of Platt Lynes’ best, most disturbing pictures play on this theme. In ‘Alexander and Diogenes’ he recreates Alexander’s encounter with the philosopher in a barrel. Alexander, smooth and strong, stands wearing nothing but his laurels and his youth looking down at Diogenes, wizened and wrinkled, wearing nothing but his years and his wisdom. In his famous portrait of Somerset Maugham, a fat middle-aged man fully clothed in a dark suit looks down contemptuously/enviously at a slim, naked young man kneeling before him.
As this last picture hints, there’s something slightly distasteful, slightly corrupt in the fey, 1940s New York world of writers, artists, ballet dancers, fashion photographers and Fire Island parties that this kind of photography emerged from and which employed Greek imagery, partly in an understandable attempt to avert the intervention of the law, and partly in an attempt to bestow something pure, virile and artistic on something that – frankly – wasn’t. It’s a world too fey and pretentious to be erotic and too timid and neutered to be artistically impressive. As Leddick writes of one of Lynes’ models: ‘Bill Harris was an arbiter of style. During the 1940s and 1980s, when one wanted to do things the right way — clothes, travel, lovers — one called Harris for advice.’
Curiously, in all the tributes to the ‘brave’ pioneers of male nudes there is no mention of the L.A. photographer Bob Mizer, who also used Greek and Roman imagery, but in a way that somehow managed to be erotic and pure, virile and artistic, as well as light-hearted. Of course, Mizer was too crude, he used Californian sunlight instead of overwrought New York studio lighting, he wasn’t a friend of Cadmus, he didn’t move in Cafe Society, and the Manhattan Mommies Boys no doubt disapproved of the rough sailor and Marine models he used, and which most of them didn’t have the nerve to pick up themselves.
Moving in Café Society does, however, have its perks — you occasionally persuade a celeb, or celeb-to-be to strip for you. A picture of Christopher Isherwood from the 1940s shows him dressing to the left; and one of Yul Brynner from the same era shows both his heads covered — he sports a full mane of hair and a fully un-American foreskin. But best of all by far is a picture of Tennessee Williams lying face down on a bed. We are told that Mr Williams’ possessed a ‘taut swimmers’ body’.
This may or may not be the case, but judging by the picture, I have to say that that I doubt if Mr Williams’ bum will feature in Twenty First Century history books about the Twentieth Century. It certainly wouldn’t sell much ice-cream.
Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, April 1998