I have always been fascinated with the distinction between artistic, erotic, and pornographic. The fine lines between the forms (if there are any lines at all) are tested by a lot of artists, some times to provoke, other times to test, and in some instances, well, just because it happened.
I remember the first time I saw a picture of a naked man. I was in that stage between not too young and not old enough, and its source was so unexpected that I remember surprise overtaking every other single feeling.
It was in a magazine. I remember going to the newsstand, and seeing the corner of a cover hidden behind a pile of other magazines on the top shelf. Now, you have to believe me, I really did not know why these magazines were on the top shelf, why they were covered in plastic, or why parts of them had small stickers blocking parts of the cover picture. I just read ‘great competition’ on the cover, and as I was going through the stage of collecting everything, I grabbed it, went to the counter, and even though I thought it was strange that the cashier asked me twice if I knew what I was buying, I accepted his offer for a black bag and went home.
I remember going in the living room, taking the magazine out of the bag and out of its plastic case, and opening it. The feature it was in started with a guy wearing a flannel shirt, black trousers and boots. His hair was curly and his face long. It seemed like every shot magically took one piece of clothing off him, so, when I turned the page, there he was, naked. I had never seen a picture of a naked man before. It was so strange. He was so …different. His penis was the strangest, weirdest thing I had seen up until that moment; don’t get me wrong, growing up in Greece meant getting your fair share of nude sculptures in museums, naked lithographs in history books and if participating in sports, locker rooms with other naked men. But the fact that this was on a magazine made this experience totally different. It was not meant to be artistic; it was intended to be erotic-even though it ended being pornographic.
So being in Space Station 65 and standing in front of John Palatinus‘s naked portraits of men is making me think of these distinctions. Male sexual photography was defined, stigmatised, and redefined during the 1950s, and Palatinus was one of the key figures in this era.
During that period, photographers started taking portraits of handsome men with built bodies, that as time passed they started losing items of clothing. The images were printed in magazines like Tomorrow’s Man, or mailed directly to customers in the pretence of admiring the male physique. However, when full-frontal pictures started emerging, the authorities stepped in and arrested various publishers, photographers, and models.
One of these photographers was John Palatinus. When the New York police department and the US Postage Inspectors raided his apartment, they confiscated all of his prints, photographs, original negatives, cameras, lights, and equipments. After a conviction of Conspiracy and a misdemeanour charge, Palatinus was disgraced, out of business, and most importantly robbed out of his whole back work.
Now, you might be reading this and thinking ‘well, what work? This was pornography!’. And that is where the fine line lies. Even though the pictures were sexually charged, they would be described as erotic instead of pornographic. They were admiring the male form instead of cheapening it. Palatinus got rid of the cheesy props and the cheap backdrops, and used white backgrounds, lights and shadow to highlight the topography of the male physique.
Countless of shoots have been informed from Palatinus’s work, and some have actually completely copied his style (giving him credit, of course). This is why archivist and curator of vintage physique photography, Alan Harmon, was extremely surprised when he after speaking with Palatinus, he discovered they not only lived close by, but would embark on a mission to retrieve a lot of his photography from various sources.
A large portion of his work has been recovered, and can be seen on the walls of Space Station 65. From the risqué to the explicit, it is the demure that seem to hide questions about sexuality, arousal, erotica and, well, art.
This made me think of the homoerotically charged imagery of Ambercrombie & Fitch, and the Men’s Health magazines that use simular poses and eventually claim to serve the same purpose: admire the male physique. The classic cover shot with a man looking down at his toned torso with a smile on his face is tinted with a hint of eroticism that can be found in that early male physique photography.
The camera might be digital now, but the light still captures the same questions, the same social mysteries, the same fine lines that make the edges of the pixels.