Naked Men: Pioneering Male Nudes 1935-1955. – book reviews

Peter Galvin

Now we know whom to blame for all those coffee-table books of male erotica. You’ve seen them in your local gay bookstore–tomes like Bruce Weber’s Bear Pond, Tom Bianchi’s Extraordinary Friends, and Gianni Versace’s Men Without Ties. Geared toward a gay male audience, these books pretend to be about liberating the male form from societal and sartorial constrictions but are actually promoting a type of body fascism far more constricting than any three-piece suit could ever be.

Now along comes Naked Men, a chronicle of the early days of male nude photography. The book documents the artistic movement that led to the current crop of male erotica. Although the book includes important historical facts and information, author David Leddick’s text ultimately focuses more on the titillating sexual shenanigans that helped bring about some of these pictures than the social context in which they were taken.

This is not to say that Naked Men doesn’t provide an interesting read (and viewing), The book covers the period from 1935 to 1955, a time when taking and looking at pictures of naked men was strictly taboo. Despite the societal repression of the day, a group of men, led by photographer George Platt Lynes, painter Paul Cadmus, and arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, sought to enlarge the ways in which male sexuality was presented in painting, sculpture, and photography. This convention-defying trio formed the nexus of a primarily homosexual arts circle in Now York in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Naked Men deals mainly with the work of Platt Lynes, who often did after-hours shoots with his male nudes on sets built for fashion sessions. These photos were rarely shown in public, although some were reproduced in Der Kreis, a Swiss homo-erotic publication.

Leddick’s biographies of Platt Lynes, Cadmus, and Kirstein are brief but absorbing. The photos themselves are a mixed bag. Some of the more surrealistic shots are provocative, but others–including nude shots of Tennessee Williams and Yul Brynner–are lifeless and mundane.

Despite these shortcomings, Leddick rightly sees Platt Lynes and company as pioneers of a sexual-liberation movement that led directly to the gay rights movement of the past three decades. These men dared to express their true selves at a time when society viewed any displays of nakedness and sexuality as perverse. Unfortunately, the photos in this book have also led to the watered-down Madison Avenue version of homosexuality purveyed by so many contemporary photographers and fashion designers. Nonetheless, the book’s content forms an important part of our gay history and should provide inspiration for the continued fight for our right to live, love, and pose as we please.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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