Saturday, June 16, 2012

"It Was Almost Lost Forever:" Interview with Dennis Bell of the Athletic Model Guild and Bob Mizer Foundation

In 1945, Bob Mizer founded the Athletic Model Guild (AMG) in Los Angeles, California, operating out of his mother's house, and advertised for sale photographs of bodybuilders in nascent physique magazines like Strength & Health.

In the early 1950's, after the physique magazines had banded together to remove such ads as his from their magazines, Mizer published his own magazine, Physique Pictorial, which featured photographs and artwork celebrating male beauty.

Despite harassment by law-enforcement officials and even serving time in prison, Mizer continuously operated the studio over the next five decades until his death in 1992.

In 2003, photographer Dennis Bell acquired the estate and began resuscitating the oldest, still-operating physique studio in the world.

Today, I visited Bell in the archives, and we soon sat down for this interview:

You and I first met in 2005, just a few years after you'd acquired the bulk of Mizer's estate, which includes 1,000,000 negatives, slides, prints and films.

Do you remember how confusing the archives were? Stacks and stacks of unlabeled boxes.

Yes. But as a huge fan of Mizer's work, I mainly remember feeling amazed that I was examining negatives, slides and 4 x 5 photographs created and handled by Mizer himself more than sixty years ago.

In 2005, we were still trying to ascertain what everything was and how it fit together. We wanted the world to know AMG was about to resurface. You helped with AMG's first modern film, AMG Resurrection. Though the film's popularity has since faded, as happens to so many of that kind, the material in the archives has retained its popularity - and the way it's been catalogued, filed and stored has come a long way since your first visit!

The key was for me to learn to recognize Mizer’s handwriting. From there, we were able to quickly identify boxes full of important artifacts without having to open and inspect the contents of every single box. We eventually discovered there were hundreds of boxes containing roughly 500,000 black-and-white, 4 x 5 negatives. Hundreds more were full of slides, rolls of negatives, and every other photographic format invented in the middle of the last century.

Fortunately, Mizer never shot digitally, or I imagine all that work would have already been deleted and lost forever.

How did you end up acquiring the collection in such a disarray?

After Mizer died in 1992, his heir tried to run AMG for a couple years, failed and decided to clean out the place in order to relocate to Alameda, California. One of Mizer’s artist friends, John Sonsini, helped out, rescuing a lot of important material destined for a dumpster behind Mizer's studio. Sonsini later donated this material to me and the non-profit Bob Mizer Foundation.

So, Mizer's heir boxed up the items he wanted and shipped them to Alameda, where they sat in storage and in his garage for the next nine years.

During that time, I was a photographer in the gay adult porn world, taking still photographs for Falcon, Hothouse and other big studios in that business. I'd discovered the pioneering physique photographers of the mid-1900's, and I'm sure my own style has been influenced by theirs.

Eventually, I set up the website [now] to showcase the work of all the physique studios. I managed to locate where many of the studios’ archives were and met Mizer's heir.

We hit it off.

He said he wanted me to continue the care of AMG, that he'd nearly decided to split apart the archives, sell off what he could and throw out the rest.

That's how I acquired the estate just over ten years after Mizer died.

Amazing. You were a photographer with a website featuring images by the physique studios. And, suddenly, you were the new owner of one of the studios.

AMG is legendary. I think everything I had been doing as a photographer during the previous ten years pointed straight to my being the next caretaker of AMG. I decided to give it everything I had, including the next several decades of my life.

The surprise for me came when I discovered in box after box thousands of images almost nobody has seen, images never intended for publication, material far removed from the work associated with “Mizer the beefcake photographer.” I learned he was an artist continually experimenting with the emerging technology of his day, an artist whose work needs to be seen by today's mainstream art world.

Is that why you founded the Bob Mizer Foundation?

First and foremost, the Bob Mizer Foundation will hold Mizer’s work and that of other physique studios. Included in Mizer's estate were some other photographers' estates, which he had cared for and owned the rights to. Other material has since been donated to the Foundation.

Today, we have identified and organized numerous pieces of the estate to the point that they need a new home, by which I mean negatives and slides need new archival sleeves, 10,000 films need new archival cans, and 2,500 betamax videos need new cases. All these items need to be stored in new fixtures.

Soon, I hope, the digital database we have amassed will be searchable like an online library.

You showed me today several beautiful photographs quite different from Mizer's physique work.

His work can be divided into two broad categories: the Athletic Model Guild category, which includes the beefcake photographs and muscle films, and the Bob Mizer Foundation category, which houses rare material he didn't catalogue, like his commercial photography, portraits, his boyhood photos, his letters and business-related documents.

And all of this cataloguing, filing and storage certainly costs money, which is why people can donate directly to the Foundation and why you organize fundraising campaigns through Kickstarter.

There will also be gallery shows featuring photographs from both categories. Right now, we are planning a gallery show in New York City of Mizer’s amazing portrait work and early commercial photography from the 1940's.

We’ve done several film screenings, too. The Masculinity of the American Male was presented in February, 2012 to a sold-out audience at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California.

I gave a lecture earlier this month at San Francisco’s Center for Sex And Culture. That show, "AMG Whizz-Bang," focused on Mizer's work in the transitional years between softcore and hardcore films from 1967 to 1973.

A few years ago, we produced the Taschen book, Bob’s World, which focuses on Mizer's color photographs in the 1980's. And we are now working on a book featuring images from the Foundation category.

You said being the caretaker of Mizer's estate - and now guiding the Bob Mizer Foundation - will likely consume several decades of your life. Why are you doing this?

Well, there are so many reasons.

The misconception persists today that the struggle for gay equality rights in America began on June 28, 1969 with the Stonewall Riots. Since the mid-1940's, Mizer was fighting for gay rights by battling censorship and the morals of his day. He served time in prison and endured numerous legal battles for the right to photograph adult men in the manner he chose.

With his photographs, Mizer was a trailblazer in the commercialization of male imagery whose sole purpose was to let viewers gaze at male beauty. He created and distributed Physique Pictorial, the first magazine in the world specifically designed to make these images available to anyone interested in them. And you can now see his work's influence on mainstream culture, such as in Bruce Weber’s sometimes controversial photo campaigns for Abercrombie & Fitch. It’s homoeroticism for the masses.

Before Mizer, men and women wanting to view the male form had access only to bodybuilding magazines, art study books by Tony Sansone and Eugen Sandow, and underground photographs by a handful of artists such as Paul Cadmus and George Platt-Lynes.

In the 1950's, Mizer featured in Physique Pictorial homoerotic painters like George Quaintance and Etienne, who sometimes produced paintings directly from AMG photographs. David Hockney visited AMG in the 1960's, loved Mizer's photographs of models in showers and created a whole series of paintings about them. Tom of Finland was first published in Physique Pictorial and, though they didn't meet in person for years, began a lifelong friendship with Mizer. Lesser known artists were frequently featured in the magazine, like one of your favorite models, Andrew Kozak, whose primitive-style paintings dating to the late 1940's are still with the Foundation today.

I'm also doing this to showcase all of Mizer's photographs, including the ones outside his physique photography, so that everyone can see what a great artist he was.

And I don't want it to be forgotten that the Athletic Model Guild was more than likely the world's largest, longest-running physique studio, that one man ran it, and it was almost lost forever.

You can help support the Bob Mizer Foundation by donating directly at its Kickstarter campaign and website. There you will find more information on Bob Mizer, the Athletic Model Guild and the Foundation, including its mailing address for your donations and updates on gallery shows, screenings and lectures.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Detour to Tank Hill

In early May, 2012, I was walking home from the Haight, where I'd picked up lunch at Cole Valley Cafe. On a whim, I detoured to the top of Tank Hill, a city park nearly in the center of San Francisco.

I ate lunch there and used my iPhone to shoot this video.