Physique Pictorial

1.5.2009

By Bruce Benderson

It pains me to admit that I remember when gay pornography didn't show frontal nudity. That's when I had my 14-year-old erotic moments in the town's used magazine store, thumbing through back issues of Physique Pictorial as a cloth tent poked embarrassingly from my trousers. Wish you were there.

Back then, in the '50s and early '60s, images of nearly naked muscle guys had to be slyly marketed for 'body builders' or 'art students.' The other excuse, and the only one that let you show genitals, was the 'naturist' alibi. Nudist mags claimed to offer proof of wholesome intentions by photographing families -- including children -- in polite games of naked volleyball.

In a landmark case in the regulation of pornography, Manual Enterprises, Inc. v. Day, the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that the post office couldn't refuse male physique publications. A first floodgate for gay porn yawned open. Many of the visuals were created by Athletic Model Guild's photographer Bob Mizer, whose adventures in and out of bed, the studio, and prison are amusingly recounted in the 1998 film Beefcake.

During Mizer's checkered career, he shot over 10,000 eager -- but quite often financially desperate -- young men. A minority, like Joe Dallesandro and Arnold Schwarzenegger, became legit. I myself treasure more obscure Mizer muscle-cookies, such as ski-slope-nosed Ed Fury, who later gamboled through Italian gladiator epics and graced the final scene of the Joan Crawford vehicle Female on the Beach.

In the mid '60s physique photography developed a real aesthetic. Luxurious beefcake mags -- Young Physique, Muscleboys, Demi-Gods, and Muscle Teens -- featured unsigned work by master photographer James Bidgood (one of the artists commissioned for this tribute), whom I lionized in a 1999 Taschen monograph. Legit physical culturist Joe Weider, magnate of today's billion-dollar sports empire and publisher of Men's Fitness, was the hidden backer behind all those soft-core mags. We all gotta start somewhere.

A few years later, laws further loosened. Dangling packages and erect members nudged aside posing straps and painted-out genitals. Erotica was replaced by boring frontal get-off shots. Pretensions to aesthetics were flushed down the toilet, and the age of romantic pornography collapsed. But just as no current imitator can reproduce Marilyn Monroe in all her libidinal authenticity, the gay innuendos of the art of the physique pictorial will never be fully resurrected. Too much sensuality has been lost, not to mention the kind of restraint that once led to these miracles of aesthetic invention. -- Bruce Benderson

To view modern takes on the classic physique pictorial by photographers James Bidgood, Pierre et Gilles, Benjamin Alexander Huseby, Doug Inglish, Walter Pfeiffer, Matthias Vriens and Jack Pierson, click here.

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