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Bob Mizer Took Nude Photos of Men in a Time When it was Considered “Too Gay”

November 1, 2016
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Bob Mizer’s homoerotic images of “beefcakes” made him a gay art icon. Now, a new book by TASCHEN collects his work in all of its sexy glory. By Kristen Cochrane.

Many of us know Russ Meyer, the photographer and filmmaker—among other titles—who became known for his frequently cheesy renderings of women in various states of undress. Even though this was in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1670s, twentysomethings who fawn over pop culture can usually recognize a “Russ Meyer” girl — an hourglass figure, top heavy, wasp waist, and eyebrows that could give Anjelica Huston a run for her money.

But what about Bob Mizer, the photographer who provided a male counterpart to Meyer, with his homoerotic photographs and films?

Mizer co-founded the Athletic Model Guild in 1945 in Los Angeles, where he took nude and semi-nude photographs of men at a time where it was not only controversial to do this, but dangerous. Looking at the photos now, they are unquestionably sexual—even in 2016 when we’ve seen, like, everything. I mean, he took pictures of men with bulging packages in a proto g-string doing bodybuilding poses; men wrapped up in each other while “wrestling”; men seductively looking at the camera. It wasn’t long before Mizer developed a following for his black-and-white photos of these men, which were fondly called beefcakes.

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In light of his fanbase, Mizer published the first American magazine of nude men, with the extremely chic title Physique Pictorial. But because of homophobia, Physique Pictorial was advertised as a fitness magazine when it first came out in 1951. This was, after all, the Cold War, where being homosexual was equated with being an enemy communist. There was even a name for it: the 1950s “lavender scare,” where anyone viewed as gay was subjected to intense scrutiny and surveillance in the 1950s.

You’ve probably heard of Joseph McCarthy, where the infamous term “McCarthyism” comes from. Among its many horrible tenets, it often refers to the former Wisconsin senator’s policies that discriminated against people perceived as homosexual, denying many if not all of their basic civil liberties. For instance, in 1953, president Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450, which stated that “any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion” would not be allowed to work for the U.S. government. We also know that in both the United States and Canada (at least), people suspected of being gay were followed and spied on (which actually sounds like a more perverted thing to do). Sadly, this type of surveillance based on sexuality still happens across the world.

With that in mind, it’s amazing that Bob Mizer was able to make a living with his obviously homoerotic magazine, which relied on a lot of unknown models (but some famous names included Andy Warhol protégé Joe Dallesandro and even former California governor and Jingle All the Way star Arnold Schwarzenegger). So this wasn’t just some random rag—it was alternative, and it was unapologetically gay.  

Whether you’re gay, straight, pansexual, or asexual, these photos and the bodies within them are works of art—like those statues you pose with at the Met. And if you’re inclined to have a provocative coffee table book of nude and almost nude men to shock your parents with when they visit you, a new book of Mizer’s photos was recently released by TASCHEN, titled AMG: Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild: 1000 Model Directory. Check it out here.

The book was compiled by Dian Hanson, a woman who was at the head of fetish magazines like Juggs, Leg Show, Oui, and Outlaw Biker. Until now, Mizer’s photographic history only existed in small sizes, but Hanson, TASCHEN’s Sexy Books Editor (yes, that is her real job title), pored over these photos and blew them up so we can look at them in their huge glory—for research, of course ;)

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Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her academic research is currently on queer Latin American cinema, but she also writes about art, sexuality, and life stories. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.  

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