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Photography: Gay Male, Pre-Stonewall  
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In Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall, Thomas Waugh provides an extensive history of early erotic photography. He identifies four central categories of photographic imagery: fine art (avant-garde, fashion or Art Academy); physical culture (mail-order or athletic alibi); illicit (legally or culturally pornographic), and instrumental (scholarly or social agendas produced under legal, sexological or political auspices).

The Blurring of Categories

While such categories are extremely useful, it should be remembered that any given photograph may ultimately fall within several categories simultaneously.

For example, the photographs of George Platt Lynes that Alfred Kinsey collected for the Kinsey Institute are at once illicit, instrumental, and fine art. That is, they were originally produced at least in part with pornographic intent and were therefore illegal; but they served the instrumental purpose of illustrating homosexual desire for Dr. Kinsey, while also achieving the luminosity of fine art.

Pre-Stonewall gay male photography comprises a surprisingly large and varied body of work, ranging from simple documentation of gay male lives and social circles, to artistic studies of the eroticized male form, to images whose is conveyed subtly and indirectly, to works whose intent is primarily pornographic.

Early Photography

The first examples of photographs that may be labeled as gay male photography are to be found in scrapbooks, archives, and exhibitions. Several of these are discussed in David Deitcher's Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918, a recent publication and exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York.

Deitcher's book presents an extensive collection of photographs depicting male couples and small groups. The sexuality of these couples and groups is clearly open to speculation, but even if one can not be absolutely certain that the images are of men self-consciously attracted to other men, they nevertheless tell a marvelous story of intimate friendships between men.

These photographs indicate that at the very beginning of the medium it was used to document relations and possibly homosexuality.

A genre of early European photographs, the Academic Nude, provides the first examples of clearly homoerotic photography. Ostensibly intended to assist artists in their studios, these studies of nude men and boys were also used to illustrate human anatomy and movement; but the images of hard-bodied men undoubtedly spawned other forms of creativity.

The most celebrated photographer of the academic nude was Gaudenzio Marconi, who was active in France in the 1860s and 1870s.

Early Fine Art Photography

The first major gay fine art photographer was F. Holland Day (1864-1933). He began his career as a publisher in New England, but his photographs brought him into contact with Oscar Wilde's circle.

Day mastered pictorialist techniques, creating dream-like soft focus images that blended homoerotic images of young men with Christian themes of martyrdom and suffering. His self-portrait as the crucified Christ shocked Victorian audiences as much as his practice of selecting young male models from the streets of London.

Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden

Also known by Wilde was the work of Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931). A German nobleman, von Gloeden worked primarily in Italy and made his living by producing a wide range of tourist cards spanning everything from the conventional to the pornographic.

Employing classical themes, von Gloeden favored the dark skinned Sicilian, who sparked for him not only exoticism but also a renewed interest in the classical age, where love between a man and a boy was often more than platonic.

Thematically similar to von Gloeden's photography is the work of Vincenzo Galdi (1856-1931) and Wilhelm von Plüschow (1852-1930), both of whom also worked in Italy.

Two minor photographers also working in Taormina at the turn of the twentieth century were Arthur Schulz, a German sculptor by training who published a book of nudes in Leipzig around the turn of the century, and Gaetano d'Agata, a follower of von Gloeden.

European Innovators

In 1930s Germany, Herbert List (1903-1975) helped bring a new sophistication to homoerotic photography. Best known in his lifetime as a fashion and celebrity photographer for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, today List is most acclaimed for his idyllic images of young men and boys lying in the sun, swimming, wrestling, or innocently staring into the camera.

Evocative of the popular nature-oriented, anti-bourgeois German youth movement that would later be tragically transformed by the Nazis, List's images convey both innocence and an avant-garde sensibility.

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zoom in
Top: An academic male nude photographed by Gaudenzio Marconi (ca 1865).
Center: A male nude photographed by F. Holland Day.
Above: A photograph of two male nudes by Wilhelm von Gloeden.

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