Published in 1957, the Wolfenden Report marked the partial decriminalisation of gay sexual activity in Britain, prompting gay liberation and the fight for social equality. Despite this historic moment in queer history, any depiction of male nudity suggesting homosexuality remained subject to the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, which made making or distributing such images a criminal offence.
As a result, queer visual culture in the UK remained clandestine in the post-war era, right up until the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. Photographers and publishers resorted to covert forms of image production and circulation to get around the law, and a fascinating tension between invisibility and visibility fed into the overt visuals of gay men’s bodies that emerged.
Queer photography of men’s bodies was distributed in cities right across the UK, but this kind of imagemaking was particularly prevalent in the capital, and it is this work that is the focus of a new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London.
Bringing together more than 100 works, A Hard Man is Good to Find! charts over 60 years of queer photography of the male physique, bringing together photographs produced for commercial, as well as creative and personal, purposes. Catalogues, print ordering sheets, personal albums, magazines and publications are also included, to show how these photographs were circulated, exchanged and shared.
Curated by Alistair O’Neill, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, it focuses on the geography of the clandestine culture that emerged post-war. “The show is structured through areas of London that were known for attracting queer communities and related imagemaking practices,” he explains.
“This might be open air sites where men could see and be seen, such as Highgate Men’s Pond or the Serpentine Lido, but it also includes areas that offered furnished rooms for rent that were popular with single gay men, such as Pimlico or Notting Hill.”
Interesting adjacencies are revealed, such as the fact that artist Patrick Procktor had a studio in Marylebone in the same street as physique photographer Bill Green (who traded under the name Vince).
Many of the works in the show are being exhibited at the gallery for the first time, including a set of archetypes, The Londoners, documented in the late 60s by Anthony C Burls (who traded as Cain of London) and Martin Spenceley’s street portraits, photographed in Euston in the 80s.
It also highlights fascinating historical objects such as an original 1950s posing pouch, which has its origins in the US Athletic Model Guild established by Bob Mizer in 1945, but was widely used by gay physique photographers to show as much of the male body as possible.
In bringing the show to life, O’Neill hopes to demonstrate how this fascinating pocket of queer history has gone on to influence visual culture more broadly. “The movement certainly informed the body consciousness of queer visual culture,” he says, “but I would argue that it’s intertwined history with the emergence of men’s fashion in the 1950s and 60s has played a significant role in contemporary queer style positions, both naked and dressed.”
A Hard Man is Good to Find! is at the Photographers’ Gallery from March 3 to June 11; thephotographersgallery.org.uk