Bob Mizer’s erotic beefcake photography fuelled our fantasies and defined modern masculinity
If you’re not old enough to remember a time before the internet, then you might not be familiar with the name of Bob Mizer.
Mizer is best known for establishing the Athletic Model Guild – a ground-breaking creator and distributor of gay erotica masquerading as physique and fitness modelling. But his influence and impact extends well beyond that.
Let’s take a look at his life, career and legacy.
Early life and career
Robert Mizer, who was generally referred to as Bob, was born in 1922 and died at the age of 70 in 1992.
Born and raised in Idaho, at around the age of 20 Mizer moved to Los Angeles and began taking photos.
From his very earliest photographs – taken of friends and body-building competitions on Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach – Mizer trained his lens on portrayals of masculinity.
Mizer was catapulted to infamy in 1947, when he was convicted of the unlawful distribution of obscene material through the US mail.
The material in question was a series of black and white photographs – taken by Mizer – of young bodybuilders wearing posing straps. At the time, the photographs were considered to be obscene.
Mizer served a nine-month prison sentence at a work camp in Saugus, California.
Building a publishing empire
Despite his arrest and imprisonment, or perhaps because of it, Mizer went on to build a significant mail-order business – distributing his photographs and films through the post.
Having established his studio – Athletic Model Guild – in 1945, Mizer’s signature publication was Physique Pictorial.
It’s hard to comprehend how important it was to consumers of Mizer’s work to know that they were not alone, that there were others out there who wanted the same thing, who felt the same way, who desired the masculinity represented by the confident and uninhibited young men of Los Angeles.
Mizer’s output was phenomenal. Over the years, he photographed thousands of men and built a library of around one million different images, as well as thousands of films.
The actors and models that Mizer used for his films and photographs were drawn from the periphery of the mainstream movie industry in Los Angeles – young guys hoping for their big break, rent-boys, and rough trade.
A window into the past
Viewed from today’s perspective, Mizer’s films seem silly and hammy, albeit produced with an easy humour and knowing sense of fun. What’s interesting is that they give some insight into what it was like to be a gay man in Los Angeles during that period.
It’s easy to imagine that the guys that appeared in Mizer’s short films were at the Hollywood parties, lounging by the pools of the rich and famous, and readily available for hire by the hour. These boys generally appeared to be having a good time.
Mizer’s erotic aesthetic has clearly played a pivotal role in shaping our sense of modern masculinity, and what it means to be sexually appealing as a gay man. He had a fascination with military uniforms, with leather, discipline and control, and exploring the intoxicating allure of men in positions of power.
Cultural phenomena as diverse as Tom of Finland, Andy Warhol, Falcon Studios, and David Hockney have all been influenced by the work of Mizer. The way that men are presented in today’s fashion and advertising campaigns celebrate and objectify the body in a way that was first explored by Mizer.
The Bob Mizer Foundation has been established to promote and preserve progressive and controversial photography, continuing the work of Mizer and publishing Physique Pictorial.
The world today is clearly a different place from Los Angeles in the 1950s, but it is Bob Mizer and his Athletic Model Guild that has helped to shape who we have become.
The relaunch of Physique Pictorial
Celebrating the legacy of the iconic photographer, the Bob Mizer Foundation continues to publish new issues of Physique Pictorial – the magazine that Mizer established.
The reincarnated version of Physique Pictorial celebrates vintage gay erotica but also showcases contemporary photographers who have their gaze fixed on the male physique.
Bob Mizer was an American photographer best known for his magazine Physique Pictorial. From his home in Los Angeles, Mizer photographed thousands of men – from Hollywood actors, to bodybuilders, to hustlers, and porn stars.
First published in 1951, Physique Pictorial was the first all-nude, all-male magazine in the United States – using athletic, wrestling, and bodybuilding poses to try and circumvent the strict censorship restrictions of the time.
It was Physique Pictorial that first printed the drawings of Touko Laaksone, helping to launch his career and creating for him the pseudonym by which the world now knows his work – Tom of Finland.
Mizer’s celebration of muscular physiques and barely contained sexuality has heavily influenced gay identity and perceptions of masculinity throughout the decades.
Mizer died in 1992. In 2004, Mizer’s archives were purchased by Dennis Bell. Bell established the Bob Mizer Foundation and relaunched the iconic Physique Pictorial magazine.
We caught up with Edward Rossa from the Bob Mizer Foundation, to talk about the magazine.
What sort of response have you had to the relaunched Physique Pictorial?
Enthusiastic and ready for more. Many of our subscribers feel a deep connection with Mizer’s work and are excited to see Bob’s previously unreleased photographs in print for the first time. We get a lot of requests to include more and more of Bob’s work in each volume, but an aim for The Mizer Foundation is to mix things up – that means publishing modern photographers who work primarily with the nude male physique.
Also, I think the Pictorial is a counterpoint for people who are exhausted from the glut of images that bombard them online. It’s refreshing to have something like a print publication to slow down the eye, and allow it to savour things.
Additionally, this is the same format that Bob used to present his work – and the work of other photographers – to the world. So, that’s cool and nostalgic and, ironically, very modern. It’s like the ascent of vinyl records over Mp3s.
Are most subscribers to the publication in the US, or does Physique Pictorial have global appeal?
Subscribers are coming from all corners of the globe. Our stockist keeps growing, especially in Australia and Europe.
Why does the work and the aesthetic of Bob Mizer have such enduring appeal?
So many people have deep personal experiences associated with Bob’s photographs. That’s probably because Bob shot his models in hundreds of different tableaux, so there was something for everyone in that regards. There’s also a kind of romanticism that pervades Bob’s images – a reminder of a time before Stonewall, when identity politics didn’t define people’s sexual experiences in such sharp distinction.
For myself, I feel a camaraderie when I look at these photographs – a comfort in knowing that there were men that came before me that liked to lift weights, show off their muscles to each other, and horse around as well. It’s a sense of belonging to the history of humanity that’s often hard for queer men to find for themselves. I think Mizer’s work does that.
Would you describe Physique Pictorial as erotica?
Physique Pictorial is about Art. Art can be very erotic, and erotic art can get you off – but that’s not its sole function. However, that is one of porn’s central functions.
The photographs we publish in the Pictorial are meant to stimulate but also move the viewer intellectually and emotionally. We keep that in mind as we curate the contemporary photographers we include in the quarterly, as in – ‘Does the photographer’s work function on more levels than just the erotic?’
What’s notable about the contemporary photographers featured in the relaunched Physique Pictorial?
The variety and the spectrum of emotion that each photographer’s work incites in the viewer.
The range of work moves from black and white to full colour, from the natural world to careful studio arrangements.
With each volume of the Pictorial we try to cover a wide swath of environment and humanity.
What does Physique Pictorial tell us about male sexuality in today’s world?
The magazine highlights how men continue to use photography to not only express who they are as artists, but discover for themselves new facets of their masculinity.
What do you hope that people feel when reading Physique Pictorial?
As our art director Frederick Woodruff often mentions – The Physique Pictorial is back to reassert the exact same question Bob toiled with his whole life: ‘What is it about masculinity that is so mysterious, beautiful and beguiling? Maybe I can answer that with my photographs.’ A great ambition.