Physique Pictorial continues to fuel our fantasies
The men celebrated by Bob Mizer are back in print
Bob Mizer was an American photographer best known for his magazine Physique Pictorial. From his home in Los Angeles, Mizer photographed thousands of men — from Hollywood actors, to bodybuilders, to hustlers and porn stars.
First published in 1951, Physique Pictorial was the first all-nude, all-male magazine in the United States — using athletic, wrestling, and bodybuilding poses to try and circumvent the strict censorship restrictions of the time.
It was Physique Pictorial that first printed the drawings of Touko Laaksone, helping to launch his career and creating for him the pseudonym by which the world now knows his work – Tom of Finland.
Mizer’s celebration of muscular physiques and barely contained sexuality has heavily influenced gay identity and perceptions of masculinity throughout the decades.
I recently caught up with Dennis Bell and the foundation’s art director Frederick Woodruff, to talk about the relaunched magazine and the legacy of Bob Mizer’s celebration of the male form.
When did you first come across the work of Bob Mizer and his Physique Pictorial?
Dennis Bell: Like many people, I first saw Mizer’s photographs at a young age in Physique Pictorial. I can still remember seeing those young faces turned towards the California sunshine, and knew that someday I had to follow the advice ‘go west, young man...’
Frederick Woodruff: By the time I was old enough to purchase magazines like Honcho and Mandate — back in the 80s — the focus in male nude photography was more porn-oriented and less artsy, or whimsical. After meeting Dennis in the late 90s, I got a crash-course in the ‘Mizer revolution’ — a cultural milestone that every gay man should be familiar with. Mizer liberated the male body in a myriad of ways that we can’t fully appreciate today. Mizer went to jail for his moral courage — he was a real force of nature.
Why does the work of Bob Mizer appeal to you so much?
DB: Mizer was a true artist, a man who was constantly perfecting his craft and experimenting with photography. He was pushing the medium in new directions for its time. Unlike other early physique photographers, Bob photographed for a living — scheduling commercial shoots and private sittings. He wasn’t solely focused on getting men naked for the camera.
FW: People dream of making art, whatever the medium, but never fully commit. To be a formidable artist takes hard work, manic persistence, and a love for one’s art that surpasses the desire for fame. Mizer had that. Our culture today, thanks to Warhol, has it ass-backwards.
Why is now the right time to resurrect Physique Pictorial?
FW: Because readers and collectors want it. Interacting with a print publication slows down the way we study imagery, and that kind of contemplation enriches the visual experience — that’s counter to the frantic manner of trawling through hundreds of Tumblr images every five minutes.
DB: We’re also putting our antennae up to track how impressions of maleness are changing, what younger men — gay or straight — are bringing to the masculine legacy.
Who is your target audience for the relaunched Physique Pictorial?
DB: People who worship the classic male form as it’s been portrayed by artists for centuries. People who appreciate masculine men, but not today’s hyper-masculinity. People who understand the ethos that Mizer idealised.
FW: We’re also publishing the Pictorial for individuals who desire an antidote to the glut of porn online. Not that there’s anything wrong with porn — which is an art form unto itself — but we’re bringing beauty and contemplation back into the equation of the visual eroticism of the male body. Physique Pictorial is for art aficionados, and also lovers of naked men.
What do you hope that people feel when reading the relaunched Physique Pictorial?
DB: Like they’ve been reunited with an old friend, but one that’s gotten better with age.
The relaunched Physique Pictorial also features the work of today’s photographers. Who are some of the contemporary photographers that you think embody the spirit of Bob Mizer?
DB: By contrasting the work of original physique photography masters alongside modern artists, it’s easy to trace where much modern inspiration comes from. In the work of Josh Paul Thomas in Volume 42, the playfulness he portrays in his models is reflected from the 1950s guys having fun on the old Athletic Model Guild sets. Lucas Murnaghan uses underwater lighting that highlights his models in a way that’s reminiscent of the softness found in very early physique portraits. These artists and others in Physique Pictorial are influenced by Mizer, but they’re not trying to imitate early physique photos by copying the lighting and poses. We have artists who want to shoot for us ‘in the Mizer way’ and they’re missing the point. Bodies are very different today, camera and lighting equipment is different, it just can’t be done and shouldn’t be attempted.
FW: I’ve valued the work of all of the contemporary artists we’ve worked with, although my fandom for the work of San Diego photographer Terry Smith borders on obsessive. He’s Mizer-esque with his tireless work ethic. I’m perplexed as to why his work hasn’t gone massive within art culture. Terry has the rare gift of capturing on film the essence of his relationship with his models. He’s a photographic shaman — one of those artists that was born with an eye. That’s a condition that can’t be taught in school. It’s an inherent skill.
What’s your ambition for the relaunched Physique Pictorial? Is it going to be a limited run, or is it a publication that’s now here to stay?
DB: We’ll have to stop publishing the magazine when photographers stop shooting the male form. But until that happens, we’re good.
I always think that Bob Mizer’s celebration of men has shaped our understanding of gay identity. Will the relaunched Physique Pictorial continue to focus on the type of men and the sexuality that Mizer celebrated, or is there room to take a slightly more diverse view of the world?
FW: A personal aim of mine, as the art director, is to pull back from the cliche of etched-in-stone six-pack abs and eye-popping bubble butts. There are all kinds of bodies in the world, all kinds of guys — I’m pushing to highlight a full-spectrum menagerie. Bob was a pioneer in photographing guys from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, and we’re looking to continue that tradition.
DB: The first three volumes of the new Pictorial have picked up the thread that Bob set down when he stopped photographing in the early 90s. Mizer’s legacy is sort of magical — it’s exciting to be back in that force field, and it’s exciting to be able to invite readers to join us in this adventure.