PRINT March 2003


1982: Bruce Weber for Calvin Klein

Sometimes an athlete or actor thinks he’s so much more beautiful than the way I see him. But it might have been his nose that I was in love with.
—Bruce Weber in Bruce Weber (Knopf, 1989)

WHEN HIS PHOTOGRAPH of a muscular young man in nothing but white briefs appeared on a Times Square billboard in August 1982, Bruce Weber was nearly as unknown as his model, a pole-vaulter named Tom Hintnaus, who took a break from training for the Olympics to help launch Calvin Klein’s new line of men’s underwear. Weber had set Hintnaus against a whitewashed wall and photographed him from such a low angle that he appeared not just heroic but magnificent: a colossus looming over a crossroads. The photographer, a former model himself, had a reputation for turning jocks into demigods, but he’d never done it on such a spectacular scale, or to such stunning effect. Virtually overnight, the billboard—and the undisguised bulge in Hintnaus’s briefs—made Weber the most visible iconographer of the ’80s and established his particular type of buff beef as the new all-American idol.

But for those of us who read images in men’s fashion magazines like tea leaves, Weber was a legend long before he hit Times Square. The photography of men, in and out of clothes, had already been sharply divided into periods: before Bruce Weber and after. Ever since his 1978 spread in the SoHo Weekly News, featuring a Pepperdine water-polo player named Jeff Aquilon sprawled on an unmade bed with his hands down the front of his boxer shorts, it was obvious that Weber was a man who loved men. Nevermind what does or doesn’t go on between Weber and his models; he admires and adores them—their lips, their arms, their backs, their taut stomachs, their tousled hair—and that adoration suffuses his work. He’d perfected his signature synthesis of classicism, naturalism, and (homo)eroticism in the pages of GQ in the early ’80s, where his images of casual camaraderie were the closest that magazine ever came to acknowledging that a substantial segment of its readership is gay. But if Weber was building on a largely gay framework—on von Gloeden, Eakins, Horst, Platt Lynes, Cadmus, and a slew of ’50s physique photographers—he wasn’t constructing an exclusively queer iconography. Maybe that’s because Weber’s subject is masculinity—its mythos—in the broadest sense; like Larry Clark, he’s not just celebrating it, he’s trying to figure it out.

Weber doesn’t just hold up a mirror to the narcissistic gym culture he and his pumped-up beau ideal helped create. Whether his subject is Sam Shepard, Matt Dillon, Chet Baker (in his 1988 film, Let’s Get Lost), or the boxer Andy Minsker (in Broken Noses [1987]), Weber zeroes in on the construction and display of boyishness and manliness. As the texts in his many books make clear, this is not exactly an intellectual process; he’s not “interrogating gender.”

The same layering of artifice and authenticity that marked Weber’s GQ shoots and his ad campaigns for Klein and Ralph Lauren characterizes all his work, so even his documentary films have a through-the-looking-glass quality, if only because the crew invariably includes a hairdresser, a makeup artist, and a stylist to ensure that no one appears before the camera without the requisite Weber makeover. (A similarly hands-on support team attended the photographer’s marathon shoot of American Olympic contestants for the January/February 1984 issue of Interview. Though many of the athletes didn’t appreciate the attention, they all ended up looking like GQ models.) No matter how they’re achieved, Weber’s results suggest a way of being a man that is fluid, playful, artful, and at once straight-acting and gay-friendly. That’s not to say it isn’t also adolescent, self-congratulatory, class-bound, and sometimes just plain silly.

What once seemed subversive, even revolutionary, looks a bit tired if not crass these days; the Edenic idyll of naked youth Weber staged for Bear Pond (1990) is a lot less compelling recycled for Abercrombie & Fitch. But Weber still matters: He continues to make pictures of comradely affection that imagine a sweeter, warmer, less competitive world. In the early ’80s, after decades of freeze-dried male models and their female props, the matey ménages of handsome, sporty men and women that Weber created for GQ, Lauren, and Klein felt welcoming, almost consoling. Funny how powerful these fantasies can be. The curators of the 1987 Whitney Biennial, who presented Weber along with Julian Schnabel, Ross Bleckner, Barbara Kruger, Terry Winters, Jeff Koons, and Peter Halley in what now looks like the definitive ’80s exhi- bition, cited this quality in his work; they called it the “comfort of myths.” The punishing new body consciousness ushered in by the image of Hintnaus towering over us in his underwear may have eroded that comfort, but Weber’s myths have proved hard to resist, and harder to shake.

Vince Aletti is the photography critic and art editor for the Village Voice.