A Hard Man is Good to Find! Charts London’s Queer History Through Physique Photography

by Joshua Graham on 22 March 2023

Spanning over six decades of queer photography, A Hard Man is Good to Find! features works from John S. Barrington to Cecil Beaton. Editorial assistant Joshua Graham spoke with curator Alistair O’Neill to discuss what the exhibition reveals about London’s queer history.

Spanning over six decades of queer photography, A Hard Man is Good to Find! features works from John S. Barrington to Cecil Beaton. Editorial assistant Joshua Graham spoke with curator Alistair O’Neill to discuss what the exhibition reveals about London’s queer history.

The phrase ‘a hard man is good to find’ is often attributed to the premier provocateur of Hollywood’s golden age, actress Mae West. After all, the witty quip with its sexual undertones is just as campy and tongue-in-cheek as any of her other legendary one-liners. 'Hard', of course, is the operative word that alludes to a man hardened by experience or possibly a physically tough man (or something a little more risqué for those with their minds in the gutter). Well, for curator Alistair O’Neill the subversive saying made the perfect title for his exhibition at London’s The Photographer’s Gallery. An overview of queer photography from the post-war era focusing on the male physique, A Hard Man Is Good to Find! is about much more than brute sex appeal.

Basil Clavering, (Royale), Storyette EX FJSS print, 1950s Courtesy Rupert Smith Collection

Sure, those looking to ogle bulging Adonises or svelte, scantily clad men of yore surely won’t be disappointed with the exhibition's collection of over 100 pieces of visual media. Featuring photographs, photo sheets, and a selection of ephemeral works spanning six decades, the exhibition positions works by unknown artists (some being exhibited for the first time) with big names including John S. Barrington, Cecil Beaton, and Patrick Procktor. O’Neill, who teaches Fashion History and Theory at London’s Central Saint Martins, sat down with me to discuss what his curation reveals about London’s queer history.

Keith Vaughan, Highgate Men’s Pond Album, 1933 Courtesy Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries

‘It’s a story that’s quite well known’, O’Neill tells me over Zoom. ‘There are Taschen anthologies of Physique Pictorial magazine, but there’s nothing similar out there that tells the British story’. When it comes to physique photography, it's impossible not to mention photographer Bob Mizer. Paving the way for contemporary queer culture today, Mizer established his Los Angeles studio, the Athletic Model Guild in 1945 and was the publisher behind Physique Pictorial.

The quarterly men's magazine ran from 1951 to 1990 publishing physique photography and featuring works from some of the most influential queer artists of the 20th century like Tom of Finland. Immensely popular among gay men at the time due to the explicit nature of the imagery published, it largely evaded obscenity laws being distributed under the guise of bodybuilding culture rather than homoerotic art.

Bill Green, (Vince), Monotosh Roy, circa 1950s Courtesy Rupert Smith Collection

This isn’t a history that O’Neill shys away from, contextualising Mizer’s influential work early on, along with a posing pouch (the barely-there undergarment popular in physique photography) created by the photographer’s mother. ‘It certainly was informed by the Athletic Model Guild, they really paved the way for an economic model of physique photography that had a queer sensibility'. Still, O’Neill tells me the biggest difference between the USA and UK’s physique photography came down to aesthetics. Where Mizer set a standard with his studio, from O’Neill’s research London’s queer visual output was a DIY aesthetic he refers to as ‘proto-punk’. ‘It’s less rehearsed. It’s less polished. It has a believability about it.’

Basil Clavering, (Royale), Storyette EX FJSS print, 1950s Courtesy Rupert Smith Collection

O'Neill explains this DIY approach in London's queer visual output at the time had everything to do with the risks at the time. While Physique Pictorial was able to manoeuvre around the USA’s obscenity laws, the UK’s laws provided their own obstacles. With homosexuality illegal throughout much of the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1967 Sexual Offences act passed that gay sex would be decriminalised. While progress was being made, the production of homoerotic imagery continued to be taboo well into the turn of the millennium.

It’s how gay men at the time navigated the hostility towards homosexuality which makes the story O’Neill has to tell so captivating. From make-shift studios to designated districts around London, the exhibition outlines hot spots where the creation of queer visual culture could thrive. ‘The obvious sites are those where men would be permitted to bare their bodies, under the guise of sports and fitness,’ says O’Neill. A section of the exhibition is dedicated to the images created at places like the Serpentine Lido and Highgate Men’s Pond. ‘It was known for physical culturists who went there. Bodybuilders, athletes, swimmers. Because the enclosure was also a permitted nude sunbathing area, it also attracted a lot of queer men. From the 1930s through to the 70s and 80, those two communities were very visible in that space.’

John S Barrington, Catalogue sheet, circa 1970s Courtesy Rupert Smith Collection

‘A reason these areas were popular to queer men was that it allowed them to hide in plain site essentially. They could have an anonymous existence where they wouldn’t be challenged around their sexual identity because of the transience of those districts where you could just rent a room and be anonymous. A way that you couldn’t if you were living outside of London.’

A standout section of the collection is a series of photographs dubbed ‘The Portobello Boys’ featuring a crew of friends in various states of undress in a shared flat. The photographs were discovered as negatives at Portobello Road Market by the late ceramicist and LGBTQ activist Emmanuel Cooper who left the series with the Bishopsgate Institute. While impossible to pinpoint exactly the purpose of the photos, there is a strong feeling of friendship and camaraderie running throughout the collection making it easily mistakable for images that would be featured in contemporary queer publications.

William Domenique (Lon of London), model Spencer Churchill print. Bill Ward adjusted print, 1955 © Estate of William Domenique (‘Lon of London’)/ Burch Collection

The inability to identify the photographer or any of the subjects meant O’Neill was unable to get consent leading to some criticism about the collection’s inclusion in the exhibition. ‘I felt very strongly that, to not show the work to protect the identity of the sitters, is as bad as destroying that work or throwing it away. These are really important visual facets of queer history that people have to know about,’ explains O’Neill. ‘What are we waiting for? Another twenty years before someone says "no this is alright"’.

Although it's all too relatable that the appeal of A Hard Man Is Good to Find! is the explicit erotic nature of the works on display, what really makes it special is what O'Neill reveals about queer history. Showcasing work that has long existed in the shadows of shame, he's giving contemporary audiences a cultural timeline leaving them the space to ponder how much the world has (or hasn't) changed. ‘We take our visibility and our acceptance very much for granted as contemporary British queer subjects. The reason we have that is because it was a hard-won fight. We have a lot to thank that generation of men that made those kinds of images,' he tells me.

A Hard Man Is Good to Find! is on now until 11 June at The Photographer's Gallery.



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