Beginning in 1945 and for the rest of his life, Bob Mizer (1922-1992) ran a remarkably prolific Los Angeles photo studio called the Athletic Model Guild whose specialty was prime beefcake: pictures and films of nearly naked young men produced for a largely underground gay audience. In the 1950s and ‘60s, when frontal nudity was against the law, photographers of the male physique were careful to present their work as art, not erotica. Bodybuilders became Greek gods; ex-Marines, mechanics, and hustlers played Tarzan. Inspired by classic Hollywood glamour and B-movie artifice, Mizer posed his subjects in sets that combined Greek columns, swagged curtains, and faux marble plinths or Astroturf, papier-maché boulders, and a painted mountain backdrop. He had a number of competitors in America and abroad, but none were as inventive, eccentric, or relentless; he printed and distributed thousands of pictures with thousands of models but left nearly as much behind, unprocessed and unseen. A great trove of that raw material and previously unexhibited work is currently on view at NYU’s 80WSE gallery in a show titled “Devotion: Excavating Bob Mizer.” In this case, “excavating” isn’t just metaphorical: at tables throughout the show, NYU students are busy cataloging and preserving material from the Mizer archives, including the posing straps, bathing suits, leather chaps, boots, sailor hats, and other costumes his models wore. A jumble of clothing and hundreds of boxes of vintage negatives are displayed on open shelves at the entrance. Beyond that, framed photographs of a cat on a tufted sofa, a boy with a chicken, and several bathing beauties prove that Mizer didn’t have a one-track mind, but men remain the show’s main focus. The photograph reproduced here, of a group of frisky young hot-rodders gathered around a car in 1957, is typical of the vivacious group shots that surely inspired Bruce Weber’s pictures of half-naked horseplay for Abercrombie & Fitch. Overlapping with an exhibition at LA MOCA that paired the AMG iconographer with his discovery, illustrator Tom of Finland, the 80WSE show cements Mizer’s status as a cult figure whose influence is no longer limited to the queer underground.
“Devotion: Excavating Bob Mizer,” is on view at 80 Washington Square East Gallery, through February 15. 212-998-5751.