One Hundred Years of Male Nudes.
An excerpt from David Leddick's new book, The Male Nude, traces its evolution in the photography of the 20th century.
When photography began to flourish in the 1830's and 40's the most immediate subject was portraiture. The early daguerreotype printed on metal gave a reverse image and had no negative --one was all you got. But this method was soon replaced by glass plates that could make a number of prints. Artists quickly grasped how handy photography could be as a substitute for models and an alternative to going outdoors. Businesses sprang up peddling views of fields, streets and houses, and of course, nudes. The nudes took all the heroic and dramatic poses that were customary in painting.
Many buyers wanted the photographs of the female nudes for purposes other than artistic inspiration. And there must also have been men who bought and relished the photographs of the nude male models. Almost up to the present time, erotica disguised as artists' studio material has been very popular. This was the true basis for male nude photography: men posing in the kind of stances that painters could find useful to copy and incorporate into their work. Other than this the male nude was strictly under wraps as the 19th century progressed, as was everyone else.
Not only was the male nude invisible, there were great taboos about seeing it. Napoleon's nephew, Napoleon the Third and his wife the Empress Eugenie encouraged commerce and the arts in the Second Empire in France. The Emperor liked a good female nude, and the female body naked was omnipresent on the walls of upper-class homes. But nary a male nude. Men didn't like to see themselves nude. Being sexy was definitely not part of their business. They consumed the beauty of women. What women might like didn't even come under question. And men who liked men? Quelle Horreur!
The eighteenth century, which had considered a man sleeping with another guy as a little peccadillo, was now long buried. The fact that Louis the Fourteenth's brother liked to wear dresses was completely forgotten. Men ruled the roost from behind their long beards and being liked for their bodies instead of the power they wielded was beyond their imagining. In the capitalist world money was equated with power and power had to be displayed. A naked man could display nothing about his status.
As early as 1872 Eadweard Muybridge (image 1) began scientific studies that revealed the first male nude photographs unrelated to the work of artists. He developed a stop-action form of photography in his search for the exact way the human body performed. In his photographs of men running, wrestling and jumping, Muybridge insisted on his models wearing nothing. This didn't seem to disturb them; they seem quite happy frolicking about totally naked-- an extremely unusual condition to be in at that time. One notices that the Muybridge models all seem to be handsome men with excellent bodies. As one might suspect of Dr. Kinsey later, perhaps the scientist's personal predilections led him into his work.
The Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins also did photography of male nudes for guidance in his painting. He lost his teaching position when he insisted that female art students draw male models without their posing straps. Neither his photographs nor his paintings suggest an erotic atmosphere, but his getting six male students to take off their clothes and wrestle in an orchard while he photographed them would be unusual in any time period.
Muybridge's studies were not published until 1887, more than a decade after he completed them. But published they were. And the air of scandal that hung around Eakins encouraged interest in his photographs. Science lent respectability to these endeavors and allowed a peek at male nudes. There was no such respectability for Baron von Gloeden, (image 2) a German aristocrat settled in Sicily. The Baron took pictures of the local youths in simulated scenes of ancient Greece. The models usually wore only wreaths and sandals, if that. These were not scientific studies or guides for artists: they were the first photographic representations of the male nude as art object -- pure and simple.
In Naples, Von Gloeden's cousin Guglielmo Pluschow (image 2) also took similar photographs, and there were others as well. These pictures were sold to tourists, though it is hard to imagine that there were many lady tourists doing much of the buying. This was for a "men only" market and the kind of men who preferred other men. In Rome, photographers Calavas and Vincenzo Galdi soon began shooting male nudes for the same market but without classical references. In Germany, Theodore Hey created comparable images.
Von Gloeden and his cohorts weren't working underground. Their photography was considered art, not unlike the painter Alma-Padema's elaborate scenes of the ancient world. But in this "don't ask, don't tell" era there was a general understanding that most buyers were homosexual. Von Gloeden and the others set up brisk catalog businesses also, and this continued uninterrupted until World War I. The war brought an end to much of the Victorian hypocrisy and prudery. War always brings a relaxed moral code and this livelier, more overtly sexy world welcomed new advances in art photography, including many nudes.
In the 1910's... Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, raging in from Russia, had an enormous effect on music, painting, fashion and general behavior. Its stars, among them Nijinsky, Pavlova and Stowitts (image 3) were frankly sexual on stage. The repertoire of the ballets had an atmosphere of powerful emotion and abandon. You could clearly see the dancer's lithe and slender bodies.
The art photographers, although using a lot of soft focus, chose similar themes. F. Holland Day had misty, wistful youths hanging about large rocks and sylvan pools, always nude. Imogen Cunningham (image 4) a bit later photographed her handsome husband Roi clambering about Mt. Ranier in the buff.
In the raucous 1920's movie stars didn't mind being photographed and showing lots of flesh. Rudolf Valentino and Ramon Navarro were both stars with an ambiguous sexuality. The motion picture industry saw that men as sex objects was good box office, and proceeded to present the public with more. Vaudeville regularly presented dancers like Ted Shawn of the Denishawn Company, and their photographs, usually in skimpy costumes, were circulated to fans everywhere.
The freeing of the body had been anticipated before the war by "naturalists" and nudists who vacationed in the nude. And for men there was a growing interest in improving their physiques. This didn't require nudity, but once you've got it there is a tendency to flaunt it. Magazines for people with these interests began to appear in the post World War II period, and this in turn increased the visibility of the male nude image. Nature and nudist magazines had their sincere readers to be sure, but for others it was a rare opportunity to see naked bodies. Despite their innocent nature these publications were kept on a top shelf or under the counter and the brave buyer had to ask for them.
The physique magazines began as equally innocent vehicles about weight-training and diet tips. But the accompanying photos pleased a homosexual readership that never went near a gym. The publishers were quick to comprehend this and these magazines soon began to portray their bodybuilding stars in more exciting ways.
Actors' and dancers' publicity stills, photographs of nudists and bodybuilders were about it for the average nudity-lover before World War II. There was male nude photography by Angus McBean in England, Raymond Voinquel (image 5) in France and George Platt Lynes in the US, (image 6) but it was largely for the pleasure of their friends. A male nude might wander into a public photography exhibition occasionally, but this, too, was rare.
The second war of the century loosened morals and dress codes even further, and after the war physique magazines appeared in a brand-new format. This was beefcake for beefcake's sake, as practiced by Bruce of Los Angeles (image 8), Lon of New York and a number of others. There was an abundance of images for those who wanted to see them. But the male nude was still under fire. The photographers and publishers, particularly Bob Mizer's Physique Pictorial magazine, were under steady attack. The publisher of Grecian Guild Pictorial, Lynn Womack fought his way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1968 that nudity was not obscene. It was a big step for the male nude, and was seized upon quickly by many photographers and magazines.
While nude images spread rapidly in what was still the under the counter press, they had a tougher time gaining acceptance in the art world. Ten years after the Supreme Court decision the first show devoted to male nudes at the Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery in New York met with a poor reception by (male) critics. They still saw the male nude as the province of homosexuals or women who wanted to view men in a reduced and vulnerable position. Only Rene Ricard caught what was bothering the critics. He wrote "...don't men's genitals have a certain...decorative look, like an accessory thrown in to be amusing." The penis was the problem. Male critics did not want the penis to be seen as an amusement. To avoid that it was better not to be seen at all.
But the tide was against these critics. Robert Mapplethorpe was already on the New York scene, recognized as a major art force through his adept use of sex appeal and public relations. His flowers and pretty people and large penises were a heady combination for the 1980's. Following Mapplethorpe into the arena were commercial photographers Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, Francesco Scavullo, Greg Gorman (image 11) and many, many more. Books, calendars, postcards and advertisements proliferated. It took over 100 years, two world wars and a lot of determined photographers to get back to the Classical and Renaissance views of male beauty. It's unlikely that the male nude image will be covered up again any time soon.