A look at the “photo club”, the male gaze and an obsession with the female form that influenced American culture….
Art Chantry: ( email@example.com)
One of the things I love about researching the history of my profession (graphic design) is that it is so rich and full of so many surprises. Like discovering that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the flying saucer. Who woulda thunk, ya know?
Another interesting aspect of this popular visual language form is the the early permutations that the now famous and respected names in the field went through to get to their current prestigious levels. The idea that John Van Dyke and Michael Manwaring began as humble teenage pin-stripers sort of blows my mind.
It’s also fun to see the early styles that designers traveled through to get to where they are now. One of Milton Glaser’s early drawing styles included a smeary blotchy watercolor silhouette figure style that almost looked like it was finger paint. early Peter Max used a cross hatched line work that was virtually indistinguishable from 90% of his competition. Terry Gilliam’s early work for CARtoons magazine looked no different from every other cartoonist drawing for that publication – a sort of clearing house for starving artists desperate for a buck.
Which sort of brings us to today’s little image: the humble origins of Russ Meyer, the fella who turned the american male into a “breast man”. his underground “hit movies” of the “titty chintzy” genre (“faster pussycat, kill, kill”; “beyond the valley of the dolls”; “mud honey”; “supervixen”; etc.) were so over the top that they became a genre totally dominated by his personal vision and style. He almost stood alone as the most accessible and respected of the whole cheezy lot. Certainly, the women he chose to fetishize in his films stood out (literally) and were most definitely of a respectable impact. His love of the female breast knew no bounds and he filled his films with women with the most incomprehensively overstated bust lines that it beggars the imagination on how to describe them.
before Russ Meyer entered the field, breasts were admired by men, but it was his obsession with the female ‘form’ that influenced the American male culture in a direction of mammary worship that we still suffer from. Shame on you and thank you Russ Meyer.
So, it was with a bit of surprise that I found this little booklet, issued in 1958, that celebrates “glamour” photography – and it’s by Russ Meyer, hisself!
“Glamour” photography was a style of “art photography”. it was essentially nude women in ‘beautiful’ and ‘artistic’ poses. hobbyists (male) would literally hire nude models to pose at their private “photo club” meetings where they would all show up and spend time photographing her. In fact, it was one of the ways that young women like Bettie Page made a living. Basically, it was an excuse for healthy young men to gawk at naked ladies and take
tures that would act as private pornography. For instance, the only full frontal nude photos of Bettie Page are from private ‘photo club’ sessions. Men would print and trade these images and it became one of the bases for the development of the contemporary pornography industry. The whole thing was sleazy and oh-so-American.
This “photo club’ phenomenon was fueled by the photo industry, which promoted this hobby (along side more standard fare like taking snaps of “still lifes” – just add a nude and you got “art”). many many books and small magazines and brochures were issued full of “how to” with titles like “how to take a good picture.” It’s almost a genre to itself, full of cute little puppies, the kids on vacation and brazen nudes. It’s a whole national style of photography become quaint and now lost.
One of the most popular type of book/magazines to emerge from the era was the “how to take glamour photographs”. These magazines were frankly sold (on news stands) as early “men’s” magazines (aka “girlie mags”). They set the standards for what you could get away with in nude photography (since it was “art” – if you could hang a painting like that in a museum, a photo of the same thing was acceptable on a news stand) and became the R-rated pornography of the era. It took the racier “men’s” magazine with names like “Satan” and “the Dude” and “Playboy” to finally push those boundaries beyond the “art nude”. But when those magazines started out, their images were actually tamer than the photo club books.
The biggest name in the ‘field’ was Peter Gowland. there must be dozens of small books that he put together. when he died recently, he was actually graced with a large obit in the New York Times, citing him as the ‘king of glamour’. But, frankly, I think his stuff was rather dull, style-less and ho-hum. our standards of erotic have changed dramatically in the last 50-60 years. Our father”s idea of porn is just not even “dirty” by today’s standards. But back then it was often sold “under the counter.” Now it seems sorta silly and cute.
Then there was Russ Meyer. His obsession with the well-endowed female form took this sort of “art nude” image to a whole ‘nother level. He was a very talented photographer (his compositions are snappy, entertaining and a little crass.) But, who ever noticed? You take a standard “art nude” pose and toss in size 50 triple D breasts and suddenly it’s a whole different story. He photographed the most prized third-string starlets of the era, including many up and comers (later “as seen on TV”). It’s a rather amazing compendium of the almost famous, topless
So, Russ Meyer and his distinctive vision, a fetish that transformed a nation and forever changed how we see the ‘fairer sex’, started as a ‘photo club’ art nude photographer. who knew?
Jim Linderman (Vintage Sleaze the Blog ): http://vintagesleaze.blogspot.com/