Reed Massengill is a noted photographer and an expert in the field of beefcake photography, and the author or co-author of books on the work of George Quaintance (2010), Lon of New York (2004), and Roy Blakey (2002). He is also the author of the award-winning Portrait of a Racist: The Man Who Killed Medgar Evers (1994), and of acclaimed books of his own male nudes, including the stunning Brian: A Nine-Year Photographic Diary (2000).
As a lifelong fan of male nude photography myself, I wanted to check in with him on the field to see where it's been, where it's going, and if he believes the beefcake of the past will be fully accepted as art in the future — or whether the tastemakers in the art world will always be penis-shy ...
Boy Culture: I first heard your name back when I worked at Mavety Media Group — I think we reviewed your early photography books. What is your history with photography, and what drew you to the male nude?
Reed Massengill: I got a camera as a gift from my parents one Christmas — a Canon AE-1 — and I started shooting family, flowers, artsy-fartsy stuff like crisscrossed power lines at sunset. I was still in high school and started shooting a couple of guys doing modeling-portfolio stuff, and carried on with that into my college years. That’s really how I started. Shooting sexy guys really took root while I was in college.
RM: Brian is remarried and has young twin daughters with his current wife, and an older daughter who’s made him twice a grandfather already at 46! We shot this year, the week of my birthday, so as of 2018, we've been shooting 27 consecutive years.
It’s harder to say how we became close, except that we just kind of clicked early on, and he knew right away that I adored him and had a bro-crush on him. That hasn’t changed, even after all these years.
BC: Which photographer or models were early inspirations?
RM: I don’t think I was aware of the beefcake work when I was in high school, but certainly my awareness grew during and after college when I became a collector. Physique Pictorial was still being printed, so I was aware of Bob Mizer (1922-1992) and AMG, but I quickly became more drawn to photographers like Bruce of Los Angeles (Bruce Bellas, 1909-1974), Spartan (Constantine Hassalevris, 1913-1982), Lon of New York (Lon Hanagan, 1911-1999), Dave Martin (1923-2014). I think in part I was drawn to their stories, too, because I knew they’d worked when male nudity was illegal to shoot or publish. My university library subscribed to After Dark, so I also became obsessed with the later generation of photographers like Roy Blakey (b. 1930), Kenn Duncan (1928-1986), and Jack Mitchell (1925-2013).
BC: Beefcake seemed to have a resurgence in the '80s and '90s. Is it still, as a retro pleasure, going strong? Or has it maybe moved into the realm of fine art once and for all?
RM: I wish it would move into the realm of fine art, and then I could retire on the value of my vast collection! I think it’s going strong, but it’s still a retro pleasure.
BC: Who do you think were some of the finest beefcake photographers of the classic era, and what skills do you think set them apart from the many other guys with cameras taking pictures of naked guys? What makes the best beefcake photography art?
RM: This is the question whose answer could go on for days, since that’s really three questions.
For drama and sheer perfection of darkroom work and retouching skill, Douglas of Detroit (Douglas Juleff, 1917-1999) was an undisputed master.
Of course, among the others I admire, what set them apart I think was their ability to commingle three necessary elements over and over — lighting, composition, and model — and do it pretty consistently. Bruce, Lon and Spartan all fall into that group for me. I also think Don Whitman (1916-1998), who was Western Photography Guild, did the most stunning outdoor work of any of the studios.
BC: You were privileged to meet many of the last surviving beefcake photographers before they passed away. With the loss of Kris Studio's Chuck Renslow (1929-2017) and Champion's Walter Kundzicz (1925-2016) in recent years, are any of the greats still with us?
RM: Don’t forget Vulcan — Tony Guyther (1921-2017) — and Jim French (1932-2017), who was Colt, who also straddled the physique era before his star ascended. We lost all four of them back-to-back. That was a bad couple of years. Walter and I did a Champion book together, and were very close — his ashes are in the credenza in my dining room — and Tony Guyther and I became friends when I tracked him down to include a portfolio of his work in one of my books, Uncovered: Rare Vintage Male Nudes. They both lived into their nineties.
I lived with Lon at the end of his life, and helped mount the first serious New York gallery exhibition of his work just before he died. And I’ve been really fortunate to meet or become friendly with, or interview, or correspond with, a lot of both photographers and models from that era. Just this past November, I visited with and interviewed Tom Nicoll (b. 1929), who was Scott of London, and I’d classify him as one of the greats from the golden era. And Roy Blakey just turned 88. They’re both still with us.
BC: How on earth did you go about finding some of the photographers decades after they'd last worked?
RM: In Lon’s case, he was listed in the New York City telephone directory. In Roy Blakey’s case, I found him in 1998 through what was then AOL’s member directory. What almost always happened, though, is that one model or photographer would say, “Oh, you should talk to so-and-so.” Lon connected me with Dave Martin and Walter Kundzicz and Dick Fontaine (1932-2002), who was Apollo. Dave introduced me to Douglas of Detroit and James Hills (?-?), who was at that time taking pet portraits in San Francisco. I worked for several years with Bob Delmonteque (1926-2011), and made him well into the six figures introducing him to a new generation of collectors to sell prints to, and I was close to the little known photographer Plato, George Haimsohn (1925-2003). And lots of models, including Steve Reeves (1926-2000), with whom I corresponded for about 15 years before his death. I really regret never tracking down Mark Nixon (1937-1998) before he was murdered in Mexico, or Steve Wengryn (1936-1998) before he passed away.
BC: What was your experience with some of them like when you found them as older men and expressed your admiration for their work, work that in some cases caused them headaches and earned them prison terms, and that had been abandoned?
RM: Generally, they were very appreciative of the attention. But more than that, it was clear to them that I really knew their work and had a curiosity about their equipment and their lighting and their methods. I kept binders of alphabetized models, chrono by publication date, and when I’d sit down with someone and whip out my binder, or my archival box of prints, it was like a walk down memory lane for most of them. It absolutely endeared me to Lon right away, and I got in the habit of riding the bus up 10th Avenue from Hell’s Kitchen almost every Sunday for years, picking up coffee and Danish and visiting with him for hours, then taking the bus back down Columbus and Ninth Avenue.
Dave Martin was more cagey, although he warmed to me over time and sent me some wonderful correspondence and very sweet cards I will always treasure. Unlike the others, who eventually would open up and talk about being harassed or jailed, Dave never wanted to discuss it, and it made him angry to even bring it up.
BC: What was Lon Hanagan like? I met him to interview him for Torso. Do you think he enjoyed his brief return to taking photos and having an exhibit of his work before his death?
RM: A psychic I’ve seen several times tells me Lon is one of my spirit guides, and a powerful force always watching over me. And I believe that. He absolutely loved the attention at the end of his life, as well as the money I helped generate for him at a time when he really needed it. After he got back home the night of the exhibition opening in New York, he got into bed and called my phone — I had a separate line in my bedroom, and I’d gone out to dinner after the opening with the gallery owners — and he left a message on my machine saying, “Reed, you are going to heaven!”
Even while we were living together, he would send his daytime home health aide to the mailbox with a postcard or a thank-you note he had actually put a stamp on, and she’d mail it to me. He’d call my machine during the day, when I was at work, and leave sweet messages for me. After he died, I pulled that microcassette out of my machine and set it aside, although in the almost 20 years since then, I haven’t had the balls to find a recorder and listen to it. But if it tells you anything about what kind of man he was, when my mom was dying — and this was a couple of years before Lon passed away in 1999 — without ever having met her, he sent her a get-well card in Tennessee to tell her how special I was, and how grateful he was that she had brought me into the world, and he hoped she would get better soon. My dad found it among her stuff after she died and gave it to me.
BC: Who are some of the most popular and accessible of the beefcake shooters, and are there any obscure creators you think are more esoteric but quite interesting?
RM: Bob Mizer of AMG is by far the most accessible, because Dennis Bell at Bob Mizer Foundation has devoted a chunk of his life to making sure Bob’s legacy is not only not forgotten, but continues to grow over time. Of the more obscure, I’m partial to Plato (George Haimsohn), who discovered the model Joe Cali (?-?), and John Barrington (1921-1991), the British physique photographer whose sense of cleanliness and darkroom skills were as bad as his models were special. He gave us beautiful, early images of Helmut Reidmeier (b. 1944) and John Hamill (b. 1947) and Rick Wayne (b. 1938), all of whom were competitive bodybuilders. Theirs are among the photographic copyrights I’ve purchased and legally transferred over time, including Lon’s, Champion’s, Vulcan’s, and, most recently, Scott of London’s (real name, ?-?). I also acquired the Al Urban (1917-1992) archive and copyright after the collector William Doan’s (1940-2015) death a couple of years ago. I’ve purchased the copyrights of a few other lesser photographers, as well, over the years.
BC: Something confusing for newbie collectors: What makes an original beefcake image more valuable? What traits do people look for, aside from the shooter and/or the model?
RM: “Original” is the troublesome word here. A print can be “original” if it’s made from the photographer’s negative, no matter when it was made, but it’s a “vintage” print — made at or near the time the photograph was originally shot — that makes a photograph more valuable. Collectors sometimes are interested only in the photographer, or only in the model. Some collectors would never buy a print with a crease or a bend in it, and others are more concerned that it came from the darkroom of the photographer, no matter the condition. Everyone is different.
RM: Certainly, Douglas was among the best in the darkroom. The vintage Dave Martin prints are quite beautiful, but after he began printing again in the late ‘80s and into the 1990s, the papers didn’t contain as much silver, so his later prints aren’t as luminous, and with his failing eyesight, it was difficult for him to get off all the specks of paper towel he’d stack them between. He was renting a darkroom by the hour, and he’d print and wash the prints, but wrap them in paper towels and take them home to dry.
John Barrington was by far the worst in the darkroom. When I was at his home in London some years after his death, working with his widow to clear his home studio, I kept finding glassine sleeves of Hasselblad negatives with circles on them. I asked her what was up with that, and she said, “Coasters.” The damn fool would rest his drink on sleeves of negatives. And in the darkroom, he cropped his images so tightly. When I reproduced a gallery of his work in my Uncovered book, I made sure to enlarge the full frame, and some of the images were a revelation. There was all this stuff going on all over the frame, it was kind of brilliant. But also kind of crazy. Cigarette ash was everywhere.
BC: What do you keep in your own collection, as opposed to what you decide to sell on eBay as @titanusgallery?
RM: I’m fortunate to have pretty broad taste, so my own collection is a mix of all kinds of things. I’m heavy in vintage prints by almost all of the major American and European physique photographers who were working during the golden age. But my collection stretches back all the way to the advent of photography and its early practitioners — Gaetano d’Agata (1883-1949), Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931), guys like that — through pictorialists like Arthur Kales (1882-1936) and Charles J. Cook (?-?), to midcentury photographers like George Platt Lynes (1907-1955) and Pierre Molinier (1900-1976), all the way through the era of George Dureau (1930-2014), Bruce Weber (b. 1946), Herb Ritts (1952-2002) and Greg Gorman (b. 1949). I also have some contemporary photography by artists I’m particularly drawn to, like Slava Mogutin (b. 1974) who was a model of mine for several years just after he received asylum in the U.S., and other great photographers who are friends of mine, like Kelly Grider (b. 1963), Aaron Cobbett (b. 1966) and Robert Cusido (b. 1955). And I have a broad collection of images of my favorite contemporary model, Tony Ward (b. 1963), who I still very much want to shoot.
BC: Who would you say are some of the top models of the beefcake era?
RM: Too many to name, but I can tell you the ones I’m sort of obsessed with. I have a remarkably deep collection of images of guys like Andy Kozak (?-?), Mike Sill (?-?), Mark Nixon, Steve Wengryn, Glenn Bishop (?-?), Bob Delmonteque. Bob Kappel (?-?) is a favorite of mine. Lewis Marshall (?-?). John Manning (?-?). This could go on for days.
BC: Why do you think the work of the beefcake shooters never truly came into the mainstream, even retroactively? Is there still something too potent about a sexualized male, about a male-on-male gaze?
RM: Yes. Blame the Puritans. But I’ll bet some of the best porn collections are in boxes under the beds of “celibates” in the Vatican.
BC: In the #MeToo era and as we've evolved regading what's appropriate and what isn't. Do you think vintage beefcake images of guys who were under 18 will keep the form from gaining wider acceptance? It's definitely surprising looking at old publications and seeing the models' ages.
RM: Some of that material masqueraded as pseudo-naturist or nudist material. I asked Tony Guyther about it, who famously shot a kid named Ernie Niemi, and his response was pretty blasé. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said, “His family were nudists, his mother signed his release form, there were no frontal nudes, nothing sexually provocative, and people ordered them by the hundreds.” I think it was a strictly commercial reality for some of the photographers. Guyther sold all his negatives to another photographer in the mid-'60s, and never seemed to regret getting out of the physique business.
BC: On that same tip, I've always been fascinated that the golden era of beefcake was in the '50s, and that magazines of men showing off their asses and every bit of their bodies save for what the strap covered were on sale on newsstands in the Beaver Cleaver days. Do you have some sense of how these magazines were perceived at the time by those who sold them and non-customers who saw them? I would imagine most of the customers understood they were homo-erotic, but it surprises me still that they existed at all.
RM: I think the post-WWII era in particular, was more open in that sense than we are today in some ways. I’ve talked to a lot of the guys whose photographs were published, bareassed, in those magazines like Strength & Health and Muscle Builder, and they were very proud to have been included, bareassed or not. Their rationale seems to have been, “I worked hard for this body. Why should I be ashamed of it?” And remember, the vast majority of these guys were straight men, as most of my models today are. Frankly, I think it got them laid.
BC: Reading about the beefcake shooters as I have for many years, I'm always taken by how tumultuous their stories are. Who would you say had the most tragic life story, and which do you think did well for themselves? It just feels like there were so many obstacles.
RM: Without a doubt, Douglas was the most tragic, because not only did the police raid his home and confiscate his negatives and prints, but when he rushed home from his day job at the department store where he worked, his father — who he lived with at the time, and who knew where he stashed his special stuff — was tossing everything the police hadn’t found into the furnace. I don’t think he ever got over the loss.
Bob Delmonteque, on the other hand, although he was far more widely known as a model than as a photographer, did exceedingly well for himself. He married well, invested well, managed to get into and out of businesses at the right time. Even into his eighties, when I was dealing with him extensively, he wore beautifully tailored Brioni suits, was still in great shape, and had a head of beautiful hair I envy.
BC: One aspect of the beefcake magazines that can be downplayed at times is the art. I love the illustrations, everything from the most crudely amateurish (which have so much character) to the exquisite creations by Harry Bush (1925-1994), Quaintance, Tom of Finland (1920-1991) and the groundbreaking work of A. Jay (Allen J. Shapiro, 1932-1987). Was the art sometimes as important as the beefcake? What role if any do you think illustrations played in the history of gay rights?
RM: I think the art sometimes gave the physique magazines a little high ground. It was part of the artistic alibi, just as the exercise routines were part of the alibi. I’m not sure the illustrations — or the illustrators — played any role, ever, in the history of gay rights. I think for the most part those artists were our dreamers and channelers — I’m thinking specifically of Quaintance and his cowboys and aquamen; Tom and his bikers and leather men; Harry Bush and his horny jocks, the guys we all wanted in high school and college. They may have articulated some of our desires.
BC: What percentage of beefcake photography and gay-themed illustration art do you think no longer exists because it was destroyed by fearful artists, embarrassed surviving family members and/or the fuzz? I wonder, when I see an old beefcake magazine, if the only record of some of the photos is the magazine's pages.
RM: More is missing, destroyed, lost than we will ever know. I can only speak with certainty to the bodies of work of the artists I’ve known, since I know generally the level of their output, how much was published, how many days a week they worked and shot photographs over how many years. But I think it would be a pretty accurate estimate to say that for someone like Lon, or Douglas, perhaps as little as 10 percent remains. And that might be a generous guess.