Search form

Scroll To Top

Tom of Finland Models Recount Early Days of Danger

Robert Mapplethorpe 1978

Models who worked closely with the celebrated artist talk about his enduring legacy, that challenged laws of obscenity, after 101 years. (Above) Robert Mapplethorpe, photographed by Tom of Finland 

Fotografiska New York has collaborated with the Tom of Finland Foundation to produce The Darkroom, a collection of the photographic portraits by Tom of Finland (born Touko Laaksonen), which served as the reference images for his later works.

The exhibit, in honor of the 101st anniversary of Tom's birth, contains works that were created during a far different era for the LGBTQ+ community, when being out meant being not just an outcast but also an outlaw.


Out recently spoke with the president and co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation, Durk Dehner, and S.R. Sharp, the foundation's vice president and curator. Dehner was formerly a model for Tom, and he spoke about the hostility against the LGBTQ+ community during the early days of Tom's work.

"It was dangerous," Dehner says frankly, adding "it was just as dangerous for them [the models] as it was for him. Because if he got caught, he would go to prison. That's just the way it was back at that time. And...the models would be classified as obscenity, that they were violating obscenity laws, and then they would, they would go to jail for that."

Durk Dehner and S.R. Sharp, courtesy of the Tom of Finland Foundation.

"My personal experience was that we did an exhibition of Tom's drawing," adds Sharp, telling the story of how "a model, a gentleman in his seventies probably at the time, came up to me and showed me a little, fuzzy picture of him in the corner of a Physique Pictorial. He said 'I worked for the LA Unified School District and if anybody found out, I would have lost my entire career. I would never have worked again.' And we forget how serious it was."

Rather than submit to the dictates of the fiercely heteronormative and homophobic sentiments of the era, Tom instead sought to create his own ideal world through his art. Dehner says the Tom of Finland Foundation has sought to "replicate the utopia that Tom created in his drawings in the form of friendship and openness" in The Darkroom exhibition now on display at Fotografiska New York.


We choose to emphasize the humanity that these were friends, these were colleagues," adds Sharp. "These were commissions of people who were lost to AIDS and wanted to be remembered by their lovers. Some of them have names that Tom gave them, some had their own names, but it's connecting the stories of the artists with what they have created. The exhibition, The Darkroom, is an extraordinary example and opportunity to understand the humanity behind what Tom of Finland was doing."

The Darkroom exhibition now celebrating the 101st anniversary of Tom of Finland's birth is on display at Fotografiska New York through August 19. You can learn more by visiting Fotografiska's website or the Tom of Finland Foundation.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Donald Padgett and Dean Fryn