Los Angeles

Bob Mizer

Western Project

I’d love to know exactly what was in the heads of model Ray Robirds and photographer Bob Mizer during the shoot in which Robirds, his right arm slung around a burro’s neck, sports nothing but a sombrero, striped briefs, and fancy cowboy boots. Robirds puffs out his chest, plants his legs—tan lines dazzling—in a defiant stance, and glares into the beyond, his face full of the confidence that is no small part of what makes this low-budget South-of-the-Border fantasy so appealing. Did Mizer find the model’s physique so prepossessing that awkward accoutrements didn’t matter, or did he know that topping the immediacy of the makeshift with a dollop of humor is a recipe for sexiness?

Mizer founded AMG (Athletic Model Guild), the first male model photography studio in the United States, in Los Angeles in 1945. Initially he enlisted the help of two business partners, but, as Timothy Lewis writes in Physique, the long out-of-print Gay Sunshine Press history of AMG, Mizer was soon running the company by himself with “4 x 5 camera equipment, some converted space in his back yard storage rooms and a meager crew. . . . In the early days . . . 5 x 7 black and white prints were sold for a nickel a piece and 8 x 10’s went for a quarter.” Over the years, AMG photographed more than seven thousand men.

John Manning is rodeo hot stuff, a bandanna covering most of his face, buff torso smokin’ as he poses in studded leather chaps, a projection of netting behind him, on an impromptu pier. Perhaps he’s hunting for sailors. Loopier mise-en-scènes prove even more exciting: In a ramshackle corner of the AMG lot, the stars of Johnny Luma, Linn Ramon, Jim Reno, ca. 1950s, play a Roman centurion with a wooden sword, a pharaoh in a coffin, and a louche seaman odalisque in penny loafers—a transhistorical pickup scene in which not even the afterlife can stop the cruising.

The influence of Mizer’s work pervades all aspects of contemporary visual culture. Most immediately, AMG jerry-rigged the “sweet” prototype for family and corporate pornographers from Old Reliable, Dirk Yates, and Jim French’s Colt Studio to current top dogs Falcon and Badpuppy.com. It also juiced Warhol’s imagination, most directly in films like My Hustler (1965) and Bike Boy (1967) as well as in his celebration of Joe Dallesandro, one of the twentieth-century cinema’s premiere bods. In one of Mizer’s photographs, a nineteen-year-old lil’ Joe, innocence already a memory but pumped with the charm that will make him a Superstar, flexes, nude and tattooed, forthe camera. More recently Mizer’s aesthetic determination provided a useful template for the best work of Jack Pierson, who both modeled for and shot on the AMG lot, and inspired Bruce Weber to mainstream the look for Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch.

These crisp, new prints take advantage of the medium’s reproducibility, its almost allegorical relation to the unending stream of available guy beauties, and AMG’s mandate to bring male flesh to the masses. When asked if his models were gay, Mizer once coyly responded, “I had to be cleaner than Caesar’s wife! . . . Generally, any boy who takes time with his body, works on it and tries to make it nice, appreciates having it appreciated by others.” Some may consider Mizer’s answer and his enterprise beneath art or merely quaint in an increasingly panpornographic world, yet within the last decade a basic Mizerian impulse has been interiorized by countless men who post “self-pics” on JockBod.com and BigMuscle.com. Crouching so that the webcams will capture some of their faces along with their six-packs, elastic waistbands pulled down to show happy trails and taut crotches, they radiate an ur-sexuality that achieves its mesmerizing effect without the need for an appreciative photographer.

Bruce Hainley