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Ready for Their Close-up: Vintage Catalog Photos from Altman Galleries

Ready for Their Close-up: Vintage Catalog Photos from Altman Galleries

These utilitarian photos record the diverse inventory of Hollywood’s Altman Galleries in the 1920s and 30s. Clearly the photographer paid scant attention to composition and made no concession to value or beauty. 

In contrast to the banal warehouse setting, a crystal chandelier kneels on a rough wood floor. A dusty gilt mirror glances at the ceiling joists. A glamorous velvet-covered chair practically begs to be stroked.

The latent personalities of these inanimate objects were revealed to the camera and captured in glossy sepia prints. Candid and forthright, they’re more like headshots than still-lifes. From bit players to leading ladies, they silently wait to be chosen for a star-turn on a soundstage or a supporting role in the boudoir. 

With a range of periods from Renaissance to Deco and styles from chateau chic to contemporary cool, Altman supplied whatever the myth required. Money was no object.

We see these pieces in their prime. But what has become of them 100 years later? Do they grace the homes of Hollywood royalty still, or have they been consigned to obscurity at the back of some second-hand furniture store? Worn-down and beaten-up, hoping for a comeback.

Sepia prints, 8” x 10,” gloss finish.
Mounted on linen backing with two-hole punch in a 1” wide binding strip.
Numbered, often with handwritten corrections in purple ink.
From the catalogs of the Altman Galleries, Hollywood, undated c. 1920s - 1930s

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Nine Hippie Guys Having Fun

Vintage Photo 9 Hippie Guys Having Fun

Once upon a time there were gay hippies who came to San Francisco to find freedom and adventure and each other. And sex.

They weren’t glued to their phones. They didn’t shop at Room and Board. They didn’t work for start-ups. A lot of them didn’t “work” at all.

They had different values. They were artists, musicians and free spirits, arrayed in feathers and leathers and tight striped jeans. Young and unbowed by time or convention or AIDS or COVID.

A fleeting moment, captured by this rare photo, that reminds the isolated, lonely, frustrated and horny among us that it wasn’t always like this. Joy is part of our heritage. 

Vintage black and white photo, 8” x 10,” c. 1970.

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A Lasting Impression: My Friend Alan

Alan Winn Ford Modeling Agency NYC 1960s

Alan Winn, Ford Modeling Agency, New York, late 1960s.

We all come into this planet with our stories mostly written, but do we always tell our story to its fullest potential?

Some may boast about their career, a lavish home or new boy toy. Others experience a lifetime of fulfillment to utter only small ovations to their success. Enter Mr. Alan Winn, a soldier, a top male model, a successful restaurateur, an art collector and a charming story-teller.

Alan (left) and an Army buddy waiting for a Greyhound bus to take them on their first trip to New York City. Alan never made it to New York. He met a like-minded guy on the bus and they decided to spend the weekend in a hotel room instead. Summer of 1961.

I met Alan through our common path in visual store merchandising. My first impression was “this ole guy has a flair that reminds me of Halston!” He’d work his beautiful magic on the marble retail floor and dance amongst the ladies as if he actually owned the place. I was intrigued.

Alan and his partner Thad soon became friends outside the workplace and we shared many lovely dinners at their humble duplex apartment. Martinis would be in order along with conversations of their days in New York and Key West. One of my favorite stories was of Bette Midler and Barry Manilow entertaining at their local gay bathhouse.  

Alan (kneeling) and Thad at their infamously successful Lazy Afternoon Garden Restaurant, Key West, mid 1980s.

One night we were talking about our first gay magazines and I mentioned mine had been Honcho or Colt. It turned out that Alan and Thad had been neighbors of Colt founder Jim French and had boxes full of his photos featuring just about every 80’s gay icon. I was like a kid in a candy store. 

Alan would also show me photos from the Western Photography Guild: “my first purchase of homoerotica,” he told me. And then there were those marvelous little Ferrero nudes… and so much more.

 As the years passed I found myself looking up to Alan as an uncle, admiring his discernment and knowledge of the arts, his culinary talent, and his tales of a life well-lived full of carefree love and passion. 

When Thad passed away I made a promise to Alan; he would always be family to me and I would never desert that bond. Fast forward to the last eight years of Alan’s life. I became his general caregiver of sorts. We’d run errands, go to doctors’ appointments and have long conversations through lazy Sunday afternoons together. In a way I feel compelled to say: I needed his company as much as he may have needed mine. 

alan winn male model

Alan in a Karl Lagerfeld campaign, late 1960s and a fashion magazine.

One afternoon Alan came out of his art room with those boxes of photographs he’d shown me years ago. He said “Bruce, Thad would have wanted you and Neil to have these.” (This was in 2013 and Neil was my partner at the time). Well, with profuse appreciation we accepted his gift. 

Reboxed and kept on the shelf in our wardrobe, I never assumed much about the collection other than my dear friend Alan wanted me to have it and share it with people, as he had. Other than an occasional dusting off with a “show and tell” among friends, the boxes of men sat unaffected by the years. 

March of 2020 came along and Alan’s health declined rapidly to the point I became his full time caregiver and power of attorney. Alan’s only brother was in Utah, stuck there because of Covid-19. Alan passed on May 16, 2020. 

Alan in the middle of his Boy Scout troop heading off on a three day wilderness expedition.  C. 1949, Preston Idaho.

Alan in the middle of his Boy Scout troop heading off on a three day wilderness expedition, Preston Idaho, c. 1949.

I was left with the daunting task of donating his belongings and sharing some of his favorite art pieces amongst his nephews and nieces along with a few of his friends. I will always treasure the wonderful memories of our 22 year friendship. The gratitude I have for him as grown even deeper with his passing .

 As I became overwhelmed by the duties ahead of me, I decided one evening to take a moment and reminisce through my boxes of photos. My joy came not just from the images, but from the stories and memories of companionship of my dearly missed friend. 

Before I knew it I’d amassed an inventory of photos that left me wanting to get them back out into the world for everyone to enjoy. I threw the dice against the wall one day and reached out to Barry at Homobilia and within 15 minutes of our conversation, felt a level of comfort with my decision to consign his collection. 

Alan’s hidden treasures have been reborn in a way, and I hope they’ll be enjoyed by other aficionados of homoerotica for many decades to come.

Bruce Smith

Bruce Smith, North Carolina, November 2020

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Most Expensive Gay Snapshot Ever?

It may be the most expensive gay snapshot ever sold on eBay. This amazing photo of two guys captured in a passionate kiss was bid up to a whopping $1,594.96. The sexual energy practically leaps from the image. 

"CRAZY," handwritten in the top border, suggests how risky this was back in the 1940s (and still is today in some places). It in no way relates to the person who spent almost $1,600 for this photo.

Congratulations to the anonymous winning bidder, and seller "bambinostuff."

Almost as impressive, this romantic and dreamy photo of two guys in bed sold for almost $312 (by seller chuck7048). But a closer look has me wondering if in fact these are guys. I wouldn't be surprised if the person closest to us is female. 

Still a great photo, but probably not the same value.

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November Photo of the Month: The Little Bodybuilder

November Photo of the Month: The Little Bodybuilder

Standing against a stark black background, he flexes his lats and rocks those fabulous zebra-stripe trunks. They grab your eye and point down, like one of those old neon arrow parking lot signs. Park Here ↳↳↳

It’s a powerful and vivid image, and deeply strange. How old is this guy? How big is he? Unable to see his face, without any external points of reference, we still somehow know this man-boy is diminutive.

How? What clues do we use to make sense of what we see? Is it the proportion of head to body? The sheen of his hair or the smoothness of his skin? Can we detect a hint of baby fat?

His posing (a “rear lat spread” in case you were wondering) is poised, but with elbows flared, the backs of his hands plastered against his hips and tiny fingers pointing down, isn’t it a bit, shall we say, gay?

Interesting provenance too. Dated May 3, 1954, and stamped: “From the Collection of Robert L. Jones.” 

Jones was the star pupil of Professor P.H. Paulinetti, known as the greatest hand-balancer in the world. Jones mastered many of Paulinetti’s moves and was the first person to perform a “thumb-stand.”

4” x 5” silver gelatin print, gloss finish, fine condition.

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October Photo of the Month

October Photo of the Month

Muscles from Mockba.

That’s Moscow to you and me. It’s certainly a Russian relic, this little photo. Been through hard times and is sadly the worse for wear. Stained, torn and bent.

But a youthful charm and vitality radiates from it still, after nearly a century. Meet champion wrestler and bodybuilder, Nikolay Verdan. Unfortunately no idea what’s written on the verso (see scan below).

Nikolay’s expression and smile brings to mind not The Rock so much as The Mona Lisa. Maybe a touch naughty, a bit flirtatious? He seems to look at and react to someone standing on the photographer’s right.

How does he manage to look so butch with his Gumby hair and a girlie hands-on-hips pose? Must be the thick neck, enormously wide shoulders and bulging muscles.

Is he wearing some sort of briefs underneath his clinging MOCKBA shorts or have I been staring at his strangely spanxed crotch too long? I do believe there’s more there than meets the eye.

Muscle from Mockba verso

Original vintage physique photo c. 1920s.
2 7/8" x 4 1/2"

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Surprising Auction Results from Swann Galleries

Yesterday Swann Auction Galleries completed their second annual LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History auction.

A pair of real photo postcards from the 1977 San Francisco Gay Day Parade: “Straights for Gay Rights” and “I Love My Gay Sons” by Marie Ueda stood out because we sold them on eBay last year for $59.96. They fetched $600. Congratulations to our buyer who made a tidy profit! We have more Ueda vintage SF Pride photos here.

Also of note, Lot 193, an offset lithograph poster for The New St. Marks Baths c. 1980. Price estimate: $ 400 - $ 600. Price realized: $ 4,600. It was especially surprising because the poster was water-stained and not in great condition. We sold one back in 2012 for $675 (in pristine condition).

Finally the big surprise and top result from the auction was a graphite on paper drawing by Tom of Finland, “Fucker.” 11 ½” x 8 ½” and signed "Tom" in ink. The estimate: $ 6,000 - $ 9,000. The price realized: $ 44,000. Now that’s the kind of whopper Tom would most certainly have appreciated.

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August Photo of the Month: Vintage Urban

Al Urban vintage male nude George Kuchler

From the studio of Al Urban, one of the three great masters of early American physique photography (alongside Edwin Townsend and Earle Forbes). This photo of model George Kuchler from the late 1930’s is an astounding composition of muscle contraction and meditative poise. 

With the back of his left hand resting gently against his thigh, his gaze contemplative, Kuchler keeps every muscle taught. And Urban, famous for taking up to six hours to set up an image, was perhaps the best of the three at capturing this exquisite tension. 

The photo is an original Urban print, documented on Urban’s Catalog No. 4 (image 21). It is unsigned (no male nudes were signed for fear of arrest). On double weight fiber paper with a high silver content, it’s in good condition with slight distress at the four corners and a faint curving mark upper right side (please see scan). 4 5/8" x 7 1/4."

Thanks to Reed Massengill for help with identifying this photo and supplying the catalog image.

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July Photo of the Month: Voyeur edition

When I was a kid we spent every summer at Old Orchard Beach, Maine. This gave me the opportunity to see nearly naked men almost every day, and I took advantage of it.

I gazed at them covertly. Like a junior private eye, I’d watch. I’d lurk. I’d follow. I became quite the little connoisseur of male pulchritude.

Years before I ever heard the term “gay” I knew what I was doing, what I was feeling, was wrong. How could I explain my behavior when I didn’t understand it myself? I got that it was risky but the attraction was irresistible.

I became a voyeur.

That’s why voyeur photos have such deep appeal. I feel a connection, not with the subjects, but with the photographer. Positioned behind or off-to-the-side. Far enough away so he won’t arouse suspicion but as close as possible to get the best shot.

The men, being themselves, are oblivious to the eye that pursues them, the lens focused on their shining bodies. Waiting for the right moment. Each photo seems like a small victory for Team Homo. Gotcha.

Black and white vintage photo dated July 1967

Gloss finish on Kodak paper, 3 1/4" x 4 1/2"

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