Wednesday, November 2, 2011

“I Chose a Roman Helmet and Short Sword:" Interview with a Physique Model

Rick Alexander (who used his real name, Rich Sternberger, while posing for Champion Studio) was a popular physique model in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. 



Searching online for photographs of one of his favorite physique models, Rick stumbled upon my blog Male Models Vintage Beefcake, where he was delighted to find photos of himself taken by Champion Studio.

I was thrilled when he introduced himself.

We soon sat down for an online conversation.

I started with the question: why did you pose as a nude model?


Actually, at the first studio, Champion Studio, I thought I would be doing posing-strap modeling since that was the norm in 1967. However, the photographer told me nudity was going to be legalized in 1968 and he wanted me to do nude photos, too.

So, we did both.

I was a little hesitant about doing the nude work because I was afraid the wrong person (a family member, school acquaintance, etc.) might see the photos. In the end, I figured the chances of that happening were pretty remote, so I agreed to do it.

Anyway, I decided to try my hand at physique modeling because the whole idea seemed very erotic and appealing to me. I admired the guys in the physique magazines, and I felt like I looked as good as some of them.

I wanted to be a part of that world: wearing a posing strap, being oiled up and flexing for the camera seemed erotic and glamorous to me.

I also wanted to have professional photos taken of my physique at that time to keep as souvenirs. I'm glad I have those now. It's been fun to look back at them forty years later.

I did it to earn some extra money, too.

How was the experience of posing nude different for you at Champion Studio, COLT and the Western Photography Guild?

I got comfortable pretty quickly with nude modeling. It felt a little awkward during the first session, but after a few poses, I just forgot about the nude part and concentrated on the poses.

By the time I did work for COLT and the Western Photography Guild in the 1970's, I fully expected to pose nude, and the idea didn't bother me at all.

The three studios had different takes on physique modeling.

Champion Studio was known for its boy-next-door types. Its models were mostly preppy looking and didn't have huge builds.

COLT, of course, was famous for its ruggedly masculine, muscular models. I had that look when I posed for them in a few photo sessions and one movie, in which I was either paired with another man or was part of a group.

The Western Photography Guild was into an artistic, muscular look, with its models doing more classical, flowing poses.

What memories stand out from these shoots?

I had fun. I found posing a wonderful form of self expression. I felt very liberated.

The photographers suggested poses for the most part, but were open to my ideas, too.

When I posed for Western, we shot in the Rocky Mountains. It was wonderful to stand nude on a rock with the wind and sun caressing my body among the beauty of the mountains. I really felt in touch with nature.

The most difficult part was holding a pose until the photographer had the proper lighting and liked what he saw through the lens. Often, incremental adjustments had to be made to a pose, such as moving my arm a little lower of higher, or turning my body a little to the left or right. It could take five minutes to get the best results out of a pose.

What were the photographers like?

They were really into their work and very pleasant. Most physique photographers weren't muscular themselves, but they had a wonderful appreciation for male muscularity and masculine glamour.

I admired their creativity.

Don Whitman [owner of the Western Photography Guild] did the photography on my shoot. He had an assistant along to help with the lighting and to help me with some of the poses.

Don had a wonderful artistic eye. He told me he admired driftwood and liked to get his models to pose like driftwood in some photos.

You can see that imagery in many Western photos, with the models' arms and legs acting like tree branches and going in different or symmetrical directions.

He also admired the more classical poses.

He used flashbulbs in his outdoor photography, and that gave the models a marble-like look.

There are hardly any shadows in his photos.

I think the popularity of shows about the early 1960's like Mad Men is in part due to younger people today only knowing about that time period through history books and old television shows.

It is a bit shocking how radically different the 1960's became from the 1950's.

How do you think gay life in America in the 1950's, '60's and early '70's differs from today?


Having lived through the 1950's, I can speak from first-hand experience. It was for the most part a white-bread decade. Lots of conformity and wholesomeness.

The exception was the rebel breed, the leather-jacket crowd that appeared around 1955. They added a ruggedness and bad-boy flavor to the masculinity of the time.

Gay life was pretty private.

There was little gay porn. The physique magazines were one of the only ways to view the nearly nude male body.

The early 1960's were pretty much a carryover of the 1950's.

Things started to change in the mid-1960's, with the British Invasion of The Beatles and other British rock groups.

Men's fashions changed, and there was a feeling of self-liberation in the air intensified by the Civil Rights movement and numerous anti-establishment groups.

Things really got interesting in the late 1960's with the anti-Vietnam War protests, race riots and the emergence of the drug counterculture.

Gay life was still rather subdued because of the fear of bar raids and of being outed.

Of course, things changed in 1969 with the Stonewall riots [the defining event that marked the start of the gay equal rights movement in the United States].

By the 1970's, gay life was becoming more acceptable.

Gay bars were rarely raided, and lots of gay bars opened. There were even after-hours places and gay bathhouses.

By this time, the photography of nude adults was legal, and most of the physique studios had died out, having been replaced by more sexually-explicit studios.

More men joined gyms as the muscular look went mainstream.

And a lot of gay men adopted the "clone" look, which included facial hair, flannel shirts, Levi's and boots.

So, in the years prior to Stonewall, physique magazines were frequently one of the only outlets for gay men. Who were your favorite models?

Charles Zunwalt, Ron Rector, Richard Reagan, Keith Lewin and Phil Lambert. All had good, rugged builds and masculine faces.

Photographers?

Bruce of Los Angeles, Kris of Chicago and the Western Photography Guild. They used quality models and presented men in a manly manner.

What did you do over the years between modeling at these studios and today?

Actually, the last physique-modeling session I had was in 1975 at the Athletic Model Guild.

To my knowledge, none of the photos were published, though I thought they were pretty good. I have in my album one photo from that session.

It's possible Bob Mizer [owner of the Athletic Model Guild] kept the photos for his own use or sold them privately. By that time, I think his taste in models had changed to boyish, slimmer guys.

Bob did the photography at my shoot.

He was pleasant and more laid back than Don.

Before the shoot, he showed me the famous pool area and his "central wardrobe" closet with the various costumes he used in his photos.

He asked me to pick out what I wanted to wear in the photos.

I chose a Roman helmet and short sword.

I always had respectable jobs while modeling. Few guys could make a full-time living at modeling unless they did escort work, too.

In 1976, I opened my own gym in Los Angeles.

It lasted a little over six years, when the rent got too high and I was forced out of business.

It was a lot of fun owning that business in the field I loved.

I worked in retail after that and am now semi-retired.

I still work out a few days a week.

I'm glad I had the chance to be a part of the physique-modeling era. It's something that we probably won't see again since I don't think most photographers today are into that type of imagery.

If I had the money, I would love to resurrect that era by having my own studio and finding suitable models. I bet there would still be a market for it, but not as great as it was back in the 1950's and 1960's.

3 comments:

  1. Merci, Mort. C'était grâce à Rick....Personne m'a dit que vous parlez français. :) Michael

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  2. What a wonderful insight. Thanks very much indeed to Rick for sharing those memories. Rick is right, there would be a continuing market for the more classical approach to gay male photography.
    Thanks to Mike for the continuing recording (and resurrecting) of these important and sometimes hidden histories.

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