Coffe Table: Bare Strength by Michael Stokes

As a photography major in the late 1980s, my professor taught me Ansel Adam’s zone system, and with painstaking precision he showed how Edward Weston’s seashells and artichoke hearts maintain detail in both highlight and shadow. I found these subjects boring, and in spite of my good grades, my professor seemed disappointed with my work.

Always he was more enthusiastic about what the student at the enlarger next to me was creating. I dropped out of the photography program and didn’t pick up a camera until fifteen years later. My passion for photographic images resurfaced when I took time off my job as a real estate agent and started collecting and selling vintage photographs. I first became fascinated with the oldest photos known — and perhaps because of the rarity or taboo, male nudes became an interest of mine. Studying turn of the century photography, I noticed a niche group of artists, Eakins, Galdi, and Von Gloeden, all specializing in the male form. Moving forward to the 1920s, I explored German naturism in photography, a celebration of both the male and female nude in public and private settings.

While the German Naturists staged nude photo shoots as public, social nudity, their American counterparts tended to separate males from females, setting them in private studios. Aside from rare examples of erotic photography, the American male nudes were often depicted in hero poses or as athletes, referencing Greek classics but often censored. Unfortunately, in some countries, from the time photography was invented and up until the 1950s, many photographers served jail time for producing and distributing male nude photos.

The 1940s were an interesting time for male figure study as a group of New York fashion photographers shot women’s fashion as a day job and in their free time photographed male nudes, most of which would remain private, unpublished and unknown for many years.

The 1950s were an era of bodybuilders and kitsch, and along with the help of postal inspectors, the FBI involved itself in destroying and suppressing male nude imagery. Photographer Bob Mizer photographed hundreds of men. His work evolved from the classic nude to narratives involving pieces of police uniforms and military attire. In Mizer’s living room, oiled and flexed men in sailor caps could often be found resting on plastic sheets next to fake Grecian urns or some other corny homage to the classics. To avoid trouble from nosy postal inspectors, most of his models covered their genitals with posing straps. In spite of that, the FBI monitored his home, which he shared with his mother, and he was eventually convicted of the distribution of obscene material through the mail. He served a nine-month prison term in a work camp.

The controversy of the male nude in photographs continued forward, and as late as 1990, lawsuits were still being brought against people exhibiting the genre, one example being obscenity charges brought against The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati for hosting a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. Even today, photographers are periodically banned from Facebook for posting male nudes while rules — or at least the implementation of rules — for the female equivalent are not as enforced. For example, my photo of Alex Minsky, which Jay Leno showed on The Tonight Show, was removed from Facebook and I was banned for 30 days. My image of a priest holding his shirt open was removed from Facebook, and I was again locked out of my account. Many of my Facebook followers were furious and many retaliated against Facebook by reporting similar images but in the female form. I recall one female image reported: a woman’s bare butt, so close up it filled the camera frame. Facebook would not remove it, but Facebook removed Alex Minsky, nude from the side, butt and genitals covered. Besides the obvious fear of homosexuality, what is it about the male nude that infuriates and angers people who otherwise are fine with the female nude?

Now I draw inspiration from our predecessors, and when my model asks me what he should wear, I say, “As little as possible.” I direct him to a bottle of oil, toss him a sailor cap, or hand him a police shirt found at the swap meet. If those don’t work, a discus bought on eBay not only implies “athlete” but also can be used to block out genitals making it supposedly safe for Facebook. Better yet, if the model has a motorcycle, then I am happy to wheel it into the studio or even place it on a white comforter.


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