The „accidental activist“



Many people don’t even realize how important the contributions of photographers such as John Palatinus were in homoerotic history. The glut of images we all enjoy today on the internet as well as those published in print wouldn’t even be possible without the eye and the commitment (courage) of the photo studios, particular of that era, the1950s.

The art of male physique photography was only a part of it. This all happened a decade before the Stonewall riots on Christopher Street that the gay community now celebrates as its major memorial: Christopher Street Day.

As you can imagine, it was all the social and legal stuff, these men often had to face that truly paved the way for gay men to enjoy the sort of images you see here. To tell the story of John Palatinus today seems even more important since the discussion of internet censorship just has been started again by Steve Jobs and the I-phone censorship over the

GAYROMEO app and others. And it still is hard to imagine, to show even the „harmless vintage“ pictures even today in places like Teheran or Moscow – protest would be minimum – but worse might happen. Palatinus was surprised and delighted when Alan Harmon, an internet blogger and collector of vintage physique photography, discovered him and his „lost years“. This lead to his first show ever in Los Angeles at Rick Castro’s Antebellum Gallery. After a great start and high interest, the photographs will now be seen and the story told worldwide . BBE

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Interview: John Palatinus

Born in Indiana in 1929, John Palatinus is one of the pioneering early physique photographers of the 1950′s. Noted for his use of light and shadow, Palatinus was pivotal in creating a whole new genre of male photography. His work came to an abrupt stop, however, in 1959 when his studio was raided and his work confiscated, never to be returned. Over 50 years later he has been rediscovered as he embarks upon an international exhibition tour, bringing his ground breaking images to the attention of a new generation. Beige caught up with him to hear his unique story.

How did you get into photography?

It all started when I bought a camera when in army service stationed in the South of France during the Korean War. At the time I was just taking tourist shots, but when I got back to the U.S. in 1954 I started taking pictures of friends who were body builders. They weren’t very good to start with and it was all trial and error – I never had any formal training. But I sent some of them to a pocket sized publication called Tomorrow’s Man and they published them.

How would you describe these early images?

They were basically of men in skimpy clothes and posing straps. You could often see their genitalia through the clothes and they’d be in tight pants which left little to the imagination. Tomorrow’s Man went on to give me free advertising so I was able to sell the photos across the country and as the quality got better the magazine used me more and more. They were really successful so I then decided to do full nudes – guys lying down or posing. This was really my undoing. It was at the tail end of the McCarthy era in the U.S. which was a very oppressive time for ordinary people and particularly gays.

Your work was then confiscated. How did this come about?

I was being quite audacious by sending the nudes across the country by postal mail. I never thought that I was producing pornography. I considered my work to be photographic studies of beautiful men. People say to me now “Oh, John, you were a great pioneer,” but I really feel I was an accidental activist. I never felt I was doing anything wrong and that it was an expression of my art, but unfortunately in conjunction with the postal service the police department infiltrated my mail and raided my New York apartment. Everything was taken: the camera equipment, the stills, the negatives. None of it was ever returned. I spent a couple of nights in jail and my attorney said that I needed to close the door on this period in my life and just move on. I took his advice and went on to window dressing and interior design. This led to a successful career as a creative director in fashion photography which was a great job as it allowed me to crystallise all of my talents. I did this for 35-40 years and never tried to get the confiscated images back.

How did this revival of your work, this previous life, come about?

The genesis was that a friend phoned me up and told me that some of my images were online. He showed by a picture on a blog where I was credited, but they said they didn’t know if I was dead or alive. I got in touch with the man who produced the blog – Alan Harmon – who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of body building from the 1950s right up to the present time and had collected my images. I live in Palm Springs and it turned out that Alan lived just 13 miles away in the next town so we met up. He recreated my work – we started out with just a few pieces. The first show was in Hollywood with about 20 pieces and then we built it up to 50 and created a lot of stuff from nothing. Subsequent shows were in San Francisco, New York, Berlin and Paris. We also had a small show in Warsaw – a city which was as repressed as it was in 1950’s America. We anticipate the London show to be one of our biggest ever.

Where did you find your models ?

I started out in Indiana. Most of the boys there were straight and many went to the same gym and wanted to be photographed to show their progress. I then moved to New York and had an advert in Tomorrow’s Man. This attracted a lot of guys from the street and I would say that at that point half the models were straight and the other half gay.

In 1989 you moved from behind the camera to in front as a model yourself. How did this happen?

I had a friend who was a very good photographer and had done a lot of erotic work and photographic studies. I wanted some photos taken and I dressed me up in the same style as I photographed guys in the 50s. The work was never sold, but was published in some magazines. I must have been 75 at the time! It all started by coincidence really and we had a lot of fun doing it.

Today’s gay magazines are full of naked men. What’s your opinion on how the male body is represented in gay media today?

I find it very interesting. I think the quality of the work has improved vastly and my images actually look quite quaint up against some today. In the 80s and 90s we were showered with porn and it’s fascinating to see how different parts of the body have been fetishised over time. First you had the coconut biceps and then the huge torso with the small waist and these days it’s the six pack – everything is focused on that and without it you’re simply not in the running!

I think there’s more mystery involved when something is covered up in a photograph. It has some art to it. It can’t just be a dick pic of a pretty guy with a hard cock. There has to be something to make it worthwhile, whether that be lighting, an interesting situation or an unusual model.

The exhibition is at Space Station Sixty-Five, London and runs from 20 October until 18 November

Words: Alex Hopkins


John Palatinus 1952 in Cannes, France




The Romans had their statues of naked men – the Greeks as well,

then Christians shouted „nudity – a sin – you’ll go to hell“ –

please tell me what is wrong about a penis or an ass,

a chest, a six-pack, sturdy legs – in short: the body-mass?

It’s natural, it’s beautiful – well, with photo-shop and light –

it’s what it is, a shape, a man, a beefcake to excite!

It’s only dicks and cocks, it’s only dicks and cocks,

of naked men with funny hairdos on shores and rocks.

It’s only dicks and cocks, it’s only dicks and cocks,

of sailor men and army boys with smelly socks.

So I ask – is this pornography or art?

If it makes me hard….

Pornography has always been a part of human life,

on ancient vases, paintings and on carpets it could thrive,

copulating, penetrating, pairs on every wall –

let’s face the truth: these photos are… well, no pornography at all !

It’s hypocrisy, bigotry we’re still facing today,

and looking at these vintage photos, what’s left for me to say:

It’s only dicks and cocks, it’s only dicks and cocks,

of naked men with funny hairdos on shores and rocks.

It’s only dicks and cocks, it’s only dicks and cocks,

of sailor men and army boys with smelly socks.

So I ask – is this pornography or art?

if it makes me hard….

60 years ago these photos threatened a whole state.

Ok – today they’re still in shock from latest nipple gate.

So let’s be glad these photos, they survived, at least a few,

to figure out: it’s porn or art – I leave it up to you….

It’s only dicks and cocks, it’s only dicks and cocks,

of naked men with funny hairdos on shores and rocks.

It’s only dicks and cocks, it’s only dicks and cocks,

of sailor men and army boys with smelly socks.

So I ask – is this pornography or art?

so I ask – is this pornography or art?

Well, who cares? – Is this pornography or art?

if it makes me hard….



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