A man named Dennis Bell wants to resurrect a nude male photo magazine called Physique Pictorial, a publication that died back in 1990. He has launched a successful Kickstarter to help fund the magazine’s revival, but the story of Physique Pictorial, its creator and Bell are an interesting and vital part of American queer history.
Bob Mizer and the illegal infamy of Physique Pictorial
In 1947, a 32-year-old photographer named Bob Mizer was convicted of the unlawful distribution of obscene material through the U.S. mail for distributing black-and-white photos of bodybuilders wearing g-strings.
His conviction stemmed from homophobic laws from the ‘40s and ‘50s outlawing the near-nude depiction of male bodies. Two years before his imprisonment, Mizer had founded an organization called the Athletic Model Guild which photographed male models — often scantily clad men flexing their muscles in bodybuilding poses or two nearly nude guys wrestling. His mom made the g-strings worn by the models and his brother helped him photograph thousands of men.
These photos landed Mizer a nine-month prison sentence at a Saugus, California work camp, but the time served didn’t deter him from his obsession — if anything it deepened it.
In 1951, Mizer began publishing his enormous volume of work in a quarterly magazine entitled Physique Pictorial. Though the publication served mostly as a way to showcase his work, it also served as one of the earliest gay erotic publications in America.
Physique Pictorial was one of the earliest gay porn mags
Remember, this was the 1950s, a period of time when being gay could get you thrown in jail, fired from work and branded in the press as a “sexual pervert” or anti-American “subversive.” The U.S. government had just started the mass firing of gay and lesbian employees in a purge now known as “The Lavender Scare” — thousands lost their jobs and at least seven committed suicide over the homophobic belief that gay man and lesbian women were security risks.
Anti-pornography laws at the time criminalized the publication of porn, but Mizer and a few others published male nudes under the guise of being fitness and health magazines. As such, these pictorials were sold in newsstands, book stores and pharmacies. The magazines were many gay men’s first contact with homoerotic material. Eventually, when national anti-porn laws relaxed, Mizer’s magazine began featuring full nudes.
Mizer’s Physique Pictorial also introduced gay men to the work of erotic illustrator Tom of Finland and inspired later queer photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe.
The death and resurrection of Physique Pictorial
When Mizer died in 1992, his friend and lawyer Wayne Stanley inherited all of his art materials, and in 2004 Stanley sold it all to physique photographer Dennis Bell, a man who had established The Bob Mizer Foundation a year earlier.
Stanley has since dedicated his life to creating an archive of Mizer’s work including “hundreds of thousands of 35mm color transparencies and negatives, hundreds of thousands of 4×5 black-and-white negatives, thousands of stereoscopic slides and prints, and 3,000 finished films.”
Bell set up a Kickstarter campaign to re-launch Physique Pictorial, with issue #43 set to come out in autumn 2017. Bell says that it will feature some of Mizer’s unseen work as well as profiles and portfolios from emerging modern-day photographers who focus on the male physique.
Admittedly, most of the Physique Pictorial images feature in Bell’s Kickstarter are of white men, but when we asked about the diversity in the re-launch, Bell responded:
“Times have changed, and while we will remain true to Mizer’s ethos in Physique Pictorial, we’ll also show the many men of color that he photographed. It is a major misconception that Bob didn’t photograph black men, in fact, he even ‘dated’ one for decades. Our modern portfolios will showcase [men of color] as well.”