26
Jun
14

Photographs and text: George Platt Lynes and the male nude

*PLEASE NOTE THIS POSTING CONTAINS ART PHOTOGRAPHS OF MALE NUDITY – IF YOU DO NOT LIKE PLEASE DO NOT LOOK, FAIR WARNING HAS BEEN GIVEN*

 

Man Ray. 'George Platt Lynes' 1927

 

Man Ray
George Platt Lynes
1927

 

 

The greatest photographer of the male nude the world has ever seen – George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955).

Lynes worked as a fashion photographer in his own studio in New York (which he opened in 1932) before moving to Hollywood in 1946 where he took the post of Chief Photographer for the Vogue studios. Although an artistic success the sojourn was a financial failure and he returned to New York in 1948. Although continuing his commercial work he became disinterested in it, concentrating his energies on photographing the male nude. He began a friendship with Dr Alfred Kinsey of the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana and helped with his sex research. Between 1949 and 1955, Lynes sold and donated much of his erotic nudes to Kinsey.1 By May 1955 he had been diagnosed terminally ill with lung cancer. He closed his studio. He destroyed much of his print and negative archives particularly his male nudes. However, it is now known that he had transferred many of these works to the Kinsey Institute. After a final trip to Europe, Lynes returned to New York City where he died.2

Since the early 1930s Lynes had photographed male nudes and distributed the images privately to his circle of friends. He was reluctant to show them in public for fear of the harm that they could do to his reputation and business with the fashion magazines, for he was a gay man “passing” in a homophobic society. Generally his earlier male nude photographs concentrate on the idealised youthful body or ephebe. As Lynes became more despondent with his career as a fashion photographer his private photographs of male nudes tend to take on a darker and sharper edge. After a period of residence in Hollywood he returned to New York nearly penniless. His style of photographing the male nude underwent a revision. While the photographs of his European colleagues still relied on the sun drenched bodies of young adolescent males evoking memories of classical beauty and the mythology of Ancient Greece the later nudes of Platt Lynes feature a mixture of youthful ephebes and heavier set bodies which appear to be more sexually knowing. The compositional style of dramatically lit photographs of muscular torsos of older, rougher men shot in close up were possibly influenced by a number of things – his time in Hollywood with its images of handsome, swash-buckling movie stars with broad chests and magnificent physiques; the images of bodybuilders by physique photographers that George Platt Lynes visited; the fact that his lover George Tichenor had been killed during WWII; and the knowledge that he was penniless and had cancer. There is, I believe, a certain sadness but much inner strength in his later photographs of the male nude that harnesses the inherent sexual power embedded within their subject matter.

This monumentality of body and form was matched by a new openness in the representation of sexuality. There are intimate photographs of men in what seem to be post-coital revere, in unmade beds, genitalia showing or face down showing their butts off (see Untitled [Charles ‘Tex’ Smutney, Charles ‘Buddy’ Stanley, and Bradbury Ball] c. 1942, below). Some of the faces in these later photographs remain hidden, as though disclosure of identity would be detrimental for fear of persecution or prosecution. However, this photograph is quite restrained compared to the most striking series of GPL’s photographs which involves an exploration the male anal area (a photograph from the 1951 series can be found in the book titled George Platt Lynes: Photographs from The Kinsey Institute). This explicit series features other photographs of the same model – in particular one that depicts the male with his buttocks in the air pulling his arse cheeks apart. After Lynes found out he had cancer he started to send his photographs to the German homoerotic magazine Der Kries under the pseudonym Roberto Rolf, and in the last years of his life he experimented with paper negatives, which made his images of the male body even more grainy and mysterious.

Further, when undertaking research into GPL’s photographs at The Kinsey Institute as part of my PhD I noted that most of the photographs had annotations in code on the back of them giving details of age, sexual proclivities of models and what they are prepared to do and where they were found. This information gives a vital social context to GPL’s nude photographs of men and positions them within the moral and ethical framework of the era in which they were made. Most of the photographs list the names of the models used but we are unable to print them due to an agreement between GPL and Dr. Kinsey as to their secrecy.

I believe that Lynes understood, intimately, the different physical body types that gay men find desirable and used them in his photographs. He visited Lon of New York (a photographer of beefcake men) in his studio and purchased photographs of bodybuilders for himself, as did the German photographer George Hoyningen-Huene. It is likely that these images of bodybuilders influenced his later compositional style of images of men; it is also possible that he detected the emergence of this iconic male body type as a potent sexual symbol, one that that was becoming more visible and sexually available to gay men.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

 

1. Brown, Elspeth. “Queer Desire and Cold War Homophobia,” on the In The Darkroom blog May 2013 [Online] Cited 24/06/2014.
2. “He clearly was concerned that this work, which he considered his greatest achievement as a photographer, should not be dispersed or destroyed…We have to remember the time period we’re talking about – America during the post-war Red Scare…”

Quotation from George Platt Lynes, The Male Nudes. Rizzoli International Pub, 2011 cited on “George Platt Lynes” on the Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 24/06/2014.

 

Many thankx to Associate Professor Elspeth H. Brown for allowing me to publish her text “Queer Desire and Cold War Homophobia”. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“The depth and commitment he had in photographing the male nude, from the start of his career to the end, was astonishing. There was absolutely no commercial impulse involved – he couldn’t exhibit it, he couldn’t publish it.”

.
Allen Ellenzweig

 

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled (male nude with tattoo)' 1950-1955

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Untitled (male nude with tattoo)
1950-1955
Silver gelatin photograph
24.5 x 19.5 cm

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled' Nd [c. 1951]

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Untitled
Nd [c. 1951]
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Jack Fontan' c. 1950

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Jack Fontan
c. 1950
Silver gelatin photograph

 

Samuel M. Steward,. "George Platt Lynes," in 'The Advocate', No. 332, December 10, 1981, p.22

Samuel M. Steward,. "George Platt Lynes," in 'The Advocate', No. 332, December 10, 1981, p.23

Samuel M. Steward,. "George Platt Lynes," in 'The Advocate', No. 332, December 10, 1981, p.24

 

Samuel M. Steward. “George Platt Lynes,” in The Advocate, No. 332, December 10, 1981, pp. 22-24

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled [Charles 'Tex' Smutney, Charles 'Buddy' Stanley, and Bradbury Ball]' c. 1942

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Untitled [Charles ‘Tex’ Smutney, Charles ‘Buddy’ Stanley, and Bradbury Ball]
c. 1942
Silver gelatin photograph

.
According to David Leddick the models are Charles ‘Tex’ Smutney, Charles ‘Buddy’ Stanley, and Bradbury Ball. The image comes from a series of 30 photographs of these three boys undressing and lying on a bed together. Leddick, David. Naked Men: Pioneering Male Nudes 1935-1955. New York: Universe Publishing, 1997, p. 21.

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Ted Starkowski (standing, arms folded)' c. 1950

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Ted Starkowski (standing, arms folded)
c. 1950
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Ted Starkowski (standing, arms behind back)' c. 1950

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Ted Starkowski (standing, arms behind back)
c. 1950
Silver gelatin photograph
22.9 x 19.1 cm

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled' 1952

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Untitled
1952
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled (male nude study)' Nd

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Untitled (male nude study)
Nd
Silver gelatin photograph

 

 

Queer Desire and Cold War Homophobia

Associate Professor Elspeth H. Brown

This photograph [above] archives queer, illicit desire in Cold War America. It was made by George Platt Lynes, and is part of a set of male nudes that the photographer made in the decades leading to his death, from lung cancer, in 1955. Because exhibiting these photographs was a impossibility during Lynes’s lifetime due to Cold War homophobia, he circulated them privately among his queer kinship networks.

Lynes was part of a closely connected circle of elite gay men who dominated American arts and letters in the interwar and early post-war years. For 16 years, Lynes lived with the writer Glenway Wescott and museum curator Monroe Wheeler, who were a couple for over fifty years; they had a variety of other sexual partners throughout, including Lynes, who shared a bedroom with Wheeler during their years together. All three of them, as well as friends and colleagues Lincoln Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, and other leading figures, participated in sex parties in the 1940s and 1950s, as documented in their personal papers. However, in the context of 1950s-era red scares, which particularly focused on homosexuals, the more open sexual subcultures of the 1930s and 1940s were driven even further underground.

In April of 1950, Glenway Wescott wrote George Platt Lynes that while the erotic explicitness of George’s nudes didn’t personally concern him, he was worried for Monroe Wheeler, since Wheeler held a public position as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. “I really don’t mind scabrousness, etc., on my account, as you must know,” he wrote. “Only that our poor M [Monroe] must conclude his career with good effect and honor, I am anxious not to involve him in what is now called (in the nation’s capital) ‘guilty by association’ (have you been reading the columns and columns in the newspapers upon this and correlative points?).”

Although McCarthyism is often understood as the effort to purge suspected communists from the State Department and other branches of the federal government, the Red Scare equally targeted homosexuals, who were forced out of public service and into the closet. Wescott may well have been referring to the front page of the New York Times on March 1, 1950, where Secretary of State Dean Acheson testified about the Alger Hiss trial and the loyalty program at the State Department. Although the article purportedly concerned communism, it shows that the red scare mainly affected homosexuals, as Wescott clearly understood. Senator Bridges asked John E. Peurifoy, Deputy Under-Secretary of State in charge of the security program, how many members of the State Department had resigned since the investigations began in 1947. “Ninety-one persons in the shady category,” Mr. Peurifoy replied, “most of these were homosexuals.” This was not necessarily newsworthy in and of itself, so far as the New York Times was concerned in 1950, and the remainder of the article detailed the testimony relating to other aspects of the hearings.

Lynes continued to make and circulate his portraits, despite this climate of homophobia. He was very concerned that the work find an audience, and published it in several issues of the German homosexual journal Der Kreis in the 1950s. He also became an important informant for Alfred Kinsey’s research, as did Glenway Wescott and other members of their circle. Between 1949 and 1955, Lynes sold and donated much of his erotic nudes to Kinsey, where they are now part of the Kinsey Institute collections in Bloomington, Indiana.

© Elspeth H. Brown 2013
Associate Professor of History
University of Toronto

Reproduced with permission of the author.

Elspeth H. Brown website

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled' 1951

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Untitled
1951
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled (Charles Romans in the artist's apartment)' 1953

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Untitled (Charles Romans in the artist’s apartment)
1953
Silver gelatin photograph
19.5 x 24.5 cm

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Don Cerulli' 1952

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Don Cerulli
1952
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Male nude study' 1951

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Male nude study
1951
Silver gelatin photograph

 

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled' 1951

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Untitled
1951
Silver gelatin photograph
22.9 x 19.1 cm

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Untitled' 1936

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Untitled
1936
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Platt Lynes. 'George Tooker' 1945

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
George Tooker
1945
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Tex Smutney' 1943

 

George Platt Lynes (American, April 15, 1907 – December 6, 1955)
Tex Smutney
1943
Silver gelatin photograph

 

 

Chronology by Jack Woody

1907-1924 Born April 15, 1907, East Orange, New Jersey. Raised in comfortable circumstances and privately educated. Schoolmate Lincoln Kirstein described the young Lynes as “precocious,” crediting him with a subsequent introduction to George Balanchine.

1925 Makes first trip to Europe. Meets lifetime companions Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler. Befriends Gertrude Stein, Pavel Tchelitchew and Jean Cocteau during his stay. Returns to New York City, works at Brentano’s Bookstore for a short time.

1926 Publishes the ‘As Stable Pamphlets’ in his parents’ house, Englewood, New Jersey. Includes Gertrude Stein’s DESCRIPTIONS OF LITERATURE and Ernest Hemingway’s first published play TODAY IS FRIDAY with cover designs by Pavel Tchelitchew and Jean Codeau. Enters Yale University in Autumn, leaves in December.

1927 Opens Park Place Book Shop in Englewood. The gift of a view camera encourages Lynes to make a career of photography.

1928-1930 During 1928 Lynes exhibits his celebrity portraits at Park Place Book Shop to launch a portrait business in the shop. Continues traveling to Europe, teaching himself by trial-and-error a technical understanding of the medium.

1931 Introduced to Julien Levy. Together they experiment with photographing surrealistic still-lifes. Levy arranges to include Lynes in Surrealism exhibition at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. Visits and photographs Gertrude Stein at Bilignin.

1932 First important exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in tandem with Walker Evans. The death of his father forces Lynes to take up photography as a means of economic support.

1933 Opens first New York City studio on East 50th Street. Continued public showings of his work and interest in his celebrity portraits attracts a large clientele of New York socialites and their families.

1934 Begins publishing his fashion and portrait work in such magazines as Town and Country, Harpers’ Bazaar and Vogue magazines.

1935 Invited by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine to document the repertoire and principal dancers in their fledgling American Ballet (now New York City Ballet), a collaboration that will continue until Lynes’ death in 1955.

1936 Surrealistic composition ‘The Sleepwalker’ included in New York Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, ‘Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism.’ Lynes undertakes an extensive project to photographically interpret mythological situations.

1937-1940 Continues involvement with mythology series. Successful commercial career now headquartered in a large studio at 604 Madison Avenue. Commercial fashion accounts include Hattie Carnegie, Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.

1941-1945 Photographs airfield activities for First Air Force’s publicity and documentation. Begins to lose interest in commercial work, a process accelerated by the death of George Tichenor in 1942. Disillusioned with New York and his private life Lynes closes his studio and leaves for Los Angeles to head Vogue Magazine’s Hollywood studio.

1946-1947 Lynes begins to photograph in his rented Hollywood Hills home, experimenting with effects achieved with minimal amounts of available light. Photographs Christopher Isherwood, Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley.

1948-1950 Friends sponsor the financially troubled Lynes’ return to New York where he is uninterested in and unable to repeat his earlier commercial successes. Economics force Lynes to experiment with cheaper photographic tools. He is particularly interested in the paper negative. Meets sex researcher Alfred Kinsey; impressed with Lynes’ work, Kinsey arranges to purchase hundreds of photographs for his Bloomington, Indiana institute.

1951-1954 Publishes his male nudes in homoerotic magazine ‘Der Kries’ using the pseudonyms Roberto Rolf and Robert Orville. Declares bankruptcy. Lives in a succession of apartments and studios as illness becomes apparent.

1955 In May diagnosed terminally ill with cancer. Last portrait sitting is June 16 with Monroe Wheeler. Closes studio and undergoes radium and drug therapy. Lynes begins to destroy large portions of his negative and print archives. In the Autumn he leaves for Europe, returning to New York in November to be hospitalized. At night Lynes leaves the hospital to attend the theatre and ballet. He dies on December sixth, forty-eight years old.

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Mel Fillini' 1950

 

George Platt Lynes
Mel Fillini
1950
Silver gelatin photograph

 

George Platt Lynes. 'Robert McVoy' c. 1941

 

George Platt Lynes
Robert McVoy
c. 1941
Silver gelatin photograph

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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