Palm Beach Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach auctioned off a significant archive of photos taken by Bruce Bellas, popularly known as ‘Bruce of Los Angeles’ last week.
The 1950/60s photographer was famous for his male physique photos. Bellas died in 1974.
Some writers have gone so far as to say male physique magazines were the foundation of the gay liberation movement before Stonewall. Oftentimes these magazines were the only thing that would bring gay men together.
“Around the same time Playboy magazine was launching its controversial first issue with a nude Marilyn Monroe centerfold, Bruce Bellas was creating his own provocative art – photographs of the male anatomy,” said PBMA co-owner Rico Baca in a prepared statement. “In addition to being an accomplished studio photographer, Bellas was a well-known presence at bodybuilding and weightlifting competitions. He was one of the earliest photographers of gymnastics and acrobatics at LA’s Muscle Beach.”
Jesse Monteagudo, one of SFGN’s history columnists, has written about the impact of physique magazines on himself and the gay liberation movement.
“Though most of the physique magazine readers were gay men, the mags themselves were never gay. Instead [the photographers] pretended that they published their magazines to promote physical fitness, art, or a so-called ‘Greek Revival’ movement,” Monteagudo wrote in 2011. “I was not the only gay man whose life was changed by physique magazines. In its 1945-1970 heyday, male mags influenced a generation of men who came of age in the crucial decades that followed World War II.”
More than 200 lots of vintage prints, negatives, slides, real-photo greeting cards, and posing props were auctioned off.
“Most of the photographs in the auction are black and white, which was the standard in those days,” Baca said. “They’re beautiful, artistic images of men, including actor Joe Dallesandro, who starred in Andy Warhol movies and is considered the most famous male sex symbol of both gay subculture and American underground films of the 20th century.”
Baca noted that the sell through rate was 94 percent.
“The sale was a resounding success with the marketplace giving its nod to the relevancy of Bruce Bellas as a photographer and a historically noteworthy figure,” Baca told SFGN after the auction. “The excitement I felt from the live audience, phone lines, and online bidding made it clear that even 60-plus years after these images were produced, the impact of Bellas’ contribution to gay culture and the art world is still fresh.”
The few remaining pieces that are left can still be purchased through the auction house.
“People calling through to try and purchase the remaining pieces,” Baca said.
The collection was owned by Dimitri Levas, a board member of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Mapplethorpe was an iconic gay photographer known for the homoeroticism in his photographs. He died of HIV in 1989.
Levas acquired the collection by happenstance from someone he once helped out. It was initially left to Levas and the The Mapplethorpe Foundation, but the organization did not want another photographer’s work. So Levas kept the collection.
“It was left to me 30 years ago. I had just been storing it. It was in my garage,” Levas said. “I just hope it goes to good homes. I wish there was a place that could have taken it. I know there are collectors of this stuff out there so I hope they enjoy it.”