Hard at Work
Where were you when Working Out by Charles Hix with photography by Ken Haak was published?
I ask it that way because I think for gay men who were kids or teens in 1983, that and similar — you should pardon the expression — trade books, like its precursor Looking Good (1977) and the more openly libidinous Boy Crazy by Karen Hardy (1984), were beacons of beefcake prior to the influx of mainstream male appreciation.
The book was ostensibly a guide for men looking to have supermodel bodies, subtitled The Total Shape-Up Guide for Men, but Haak's sensual black-and-white photography owed more to the closety physique mags of the '40s, '50s and '60s than to fitness. I believe it was late MuscleMag publisher Robert Kennedy who once identified how some fitness magazines seemed gay because of a subtle perception that the models were “seducible” — by men; this is what Haak's photography, like Bruce Weber's before him, exuded.
Imagine a 228-page book — hardcover! — pitched to men looking to get fit. Not very handy, right? That's probably why the audience was more gay men, cherishing it as a coffee-table book of the greatest male beauties of the age. It was like a legit version of Playgirl you could buy at your local B. Dalton Bookseller without feeling the staff knew exactly what you were.
It makes sense that the book felt like a gay bible — Hix, like Haak, was gay and was well-known in the gay community from the '70s. Here, in 1977, he chats on The Emerald City, a gay public-access show about Looking Good:, a book he was hired to write based on his past freelance work:
Interestingly, Hix was known for his writing in Esquire and GQ, both of which (especially the latter) had a gay element at the time.
Designer Michael Bastian told The New York Times in 2008:
I have all those Charles Hix books. Something from them has made it into every single collection. It’s not just the clothes, it’s the vibe, which was kind of supermasculine. It was one of the first times guys were culling elements from tailored clothing, sportswear and work wear and mixing them together. That’s something we just take for granted now.
It was like after Gay Lib came Grooming Lib — and the two were incestuous brothers.
Don't suck in your gut or adopt the stance of a private about to salute. Study your body as it really is, in repose, not as if you're posing in a Mr. Olympia competition.
That said, his three body types were Burly, Sinewy and Stringy, all of which would be Jock or Twink today. Bears? Go shit in the woods. But again, fans of the book were not realllllly worried about self-transformation as much as self-love, and I think we needed this kind of aspirational material before we could move on to worries about inclusion.
The funny part is the book wasn't even marketed as being only for gays, yet there were so many gay indicators in Haak's exquisite shots that we didn't need the explicit invite, including a lot of male feet, some booty shots, locker-room fetish and that gayest of gay poses, the exposed, hairy underarm.
Trust me — there is not a straight man alive who needs to see another close-up of a dude's armpit in the context of a workout book.
The booty shots are remarkable today because they look nothing like today's ample twerkers, but are instead lean and athletic buns; which reminds me that photographer Christie Jenkins published a book of male tushes called Buns (full title: A Woman Looks at Men's Buns) in 1980, and while mouth-watering throughout, the book is no bubble farm. But we loved them, and anyone with common sense would still find those vintage booties to be page-turners.
Did the book have useful information? Who has time to find out? Who knows? Who cares? What it was was a snapshot of male pulchritude at the exact moment we needed it.
Speaking of the men in the book, they were consistently called “so good-looking they had to be gay.” Not necessarily true, but a nice thought. Some of them were top models of the '70s and '80s and continued to be marquee posers, others were Chippendales dancers, others seemed to appear in the book and nowhere else. Just like the men of our collective dreams, some were famous and some were famous only for the space of the fantasy.
Because they were so crucial to what the book was, let's name 'em!
The Dream Team
I am not sure if Charles Hix is alive today (he would be 76), but he was alive and well when gay marriage came to Connecticut — and he wed his partner of nearly 50 years, Publishers Weekly's Robert Dahlin. This lovely tidbit from The New York Times chronicled the legacy of this and his many other books:
Besides the rush he gets when young men discover his books, or when men in their 40s and 50s tell him how they conjured up a fashionable world that led them to New York, there are occasionally other perks as well.
Earlier this month, after learning that Connecticut, where Mr. Hix has lived since 1986 with Robert Dahlin, his partner of 46 years, would allow gays to marry, he contacted a justice of the peace mentioned in a news article to see if he could schedule a wedding for himself and Mr. Dahlin.
The justice replied that he would be thrilled. “I have all your books,” he said.
Sadly, Mr. Haak passed away at 68 in 1991. Funnily enough, I was so naive I always envisioned Haak as being the age of his models. Anything but! He was a decorated WWII veteran and self-taught shooter whose books Summer Souvenirs (1984) and Sleeping Beauties (1989), along with his work in this one, are competitive with the work of Weber and the other great photographers of men.
So many gay men owe him and Hix and Weber and others of the original gay-art analog influencers a debt of gratitude for allowing us to dare to dream about male beauty, both as an escape and — for some — as a goal.