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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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Laguna Beach Stud

Forget 2020 for a moment. 

It’s the summer of 1968. Funny Girl is the year's top grossing film. With the Apollo 8 mission, humans orbit the Moon for the first time. North Vietnam launches the Tet Offensive. Robert Kennedy is assassinated in Los Angeles. Martin Luther King is assassinated in Memphis. Mass protests erupt across the globe, from Paris to Mexico City to Chicago.

OK forget 1968. Let’s just look at the photo.

He stands there in what looks like a motel room, wearing short white swim trunks with navy trim. A beach towel draped over the right side of his body emphasizes his broad shoulders, pale white skin, and small patch of chest hair.

That face meant for the silver screen offers the hint of a smile, anticipating some fun in the sun, or maybe back in the room when he and the photographer return from their day at the beach.

Vintage color snapshot on gloss Kodak paper, 3 1/2" x 5"

Dated June, 1968.

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At Home, In Style.

Seated in a director’s chair, ¾ view, hands relaxed and legs crossed, he turns to face the camera. Though he’s at home wearing a robe and slippers this is anything but a spontaneous snapshot. 

The room provides a stylish backdrop. Nothing here is unconsidered. Books artfully but casually arranged on the shelves, a bronze horse, an elegant urn. Even the objects on the marble topped table are carefully placed: the little potted palm, the candle holder and a bowl.

Of course it’s the robe that stands out. Dark leaves cascade from shoulders and torso, offering a glimpse of thigh as they descend towards his ankle. A long black sash creates an inky puddle on the floor. His bare foot is capped with a chic open-toed slipper. 

His expression: Self-assured, skeptical, a bit weary. Is there a hint of seduction, a come-hither invitation? If only we knew who was behind the camera.

He reminds me of Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X. I suspect there was nothing innocent about either of them.

Vintage black and white photo 4” x 5 ½"
Embossed border with deckled edge.
Undated c. 1960.

Pope Innocent X, oil on canvas portrait by Diego Velázquez, executed around 1650. Many artists and art critics consider it the finest portrait ever created. Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome.

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Men in Rows: Vintage Photos Before Social Distancing

Men in Rows: Vintage Photos Before Social Distancing

When men line up for a photo, their proximity violates ordinary personal space. What are the rules? What’s allowed as men organise and pose for the camera? 

The norms are set by culture, context and era. As these photos reveal, there’s a wide range. Presumably all humans have an innate concept of personal space but the space between men can have a particular charge.

What does it mean when distance is violated or if "too much" affection is expressed? Peril lies in the (mis)interpretation: either being thought to be queer (an offense to many straight men) or inadvertently exposing one’s nature (historically a danger to gay men). 

Interpretation is of course, the realm of the viewer. With the concept of social distancing, today we see these men in rows through a new lens. Posing so closely is suddenly inconceivable when the space between us can be a matter of life or death. 

The only thing we know for sure is they were as much a product of their time as we are of ours.

Men in Rows: Athletes, Military, Friends, Swimsuits, and Queer.

From Beach Adonis magazine, January 1967.

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February Photo of the Month: Men in Union Suits

February Photo of the Month: Men in Union Suits

This rare "Setsnug" Underwear for Men antique cardboard box originally contained ribbed Union Suits, with closed crotch and (I can’t get no) “Satis-fac-shon” seat. Patented April 13, 1915 and made by Avalon Knitwear Company, Utica, New York.

Six men and boys stand at attention, lined up by height or “trunk measurements.” Lest you focus on the crotch, the photographer has, for lack of a more accurate term, air-brushed any hint of genitals. 

But the resulting dark and mysterious pubic patches have the opposite effect, drawing attention to the crotch while simultaneously emasculating the guys. This may have been an attempt to protect the delicate sensibilities of women who purchased the underwear for their sons and husbands (though presumably if they had sons or husbands they’d already have a pretty good idea of male genitals).

Union suits originated as women's wear during the 19th-century as an alternative to constricting garments and quickly gained popularity among men. Traditionally made of flannel with long arms and long legs, they buttoned up the front and had a button-up rear flap (colloquially known as "access hatch", "drop seat", "fireman's flap" and "crap flap").


Vintage men’s underwear box in overall good condition for its age. 
16” x 11” x 4,” c. 1915.

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January Photo of the Month: Crossing the Line

January Photo of the Month: Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line is an ancient, sometimes brutal nautical ceremony commemorating crew members’ first passage over the equator. There are vivid descriptions of this rite dating back to the early 1800s. 

Sailors who’ve previously crossed the equator (Trusty Shellbacks) lead first-timers (Slimy Polywogs or Mossbacks) through an abusive initiation featuring cross-dressing, nude physical exams, shaving, water torture, and “Kissing the Royal Belly.” Rarely discussed are the obvious homoerotic and homophobic undertones to all this hilarity. 

On the eve of the crossing, Wogs are allowed to capture and interrogate any Shellbacks they can find, tying them up and cracking eggs over their heads. After crossing the equator, they receive subpoenas to appear before King Neptune and his court (including Davy Jones, the sailors’ devil and her Highness Amphitrite). They officiate at the ceremony, which is often preceded by a drag beauty contest. 

During the ritual, Pollywogs undergo increasingly embarrassing ordeals for the entertainment of the Shellbacks: wearing clothing inside out and backwards; crawling on hands and knees; being spanked or smacked with lengths of hose; being locked in stocks and pelted with mushy fruit; being locked in a water coffin; and crawling through tubs of rotting garbage. Fun!

The ritual calls for Polywogs to kneel before a Shellback who wears a mock diaper. This “Baby” usually has a big belly covered with grease, mustard, shaving cream or eggs, Each Wog must lick the Baby’s navel, while the Baby grabs and shakes his head smearing the goo on his face. 

If they make it through this ordeal, Wogs are transformed into Shellbacks and can inflict similar abuse on the next crew of newbies.

One of the few writers who address issues of homophobia and homoeroticism is Carie Little Hersh in: Crossing the Line: Sex, Power, Justice, and the U.S. Navy at the Equator.

See more photos from USS Black Hawk's Neptune Party, October 1930.

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December Photo of the Month: Let It Snow!

December Photo of the Month: Let It Snow!

A couple of swells stand before a studio backdrop wearing bowler hats and long black coats, their elegant fur collars turned up against an imaginary cold wind. The taller man holds a cigar in his leather-gloved hand. 

The shorter man’s face is seen in profile, the other in three-quarter view. They tilt their handsome heads in a courteous gesture but gaze directly into the camera with an expression of, if not arrogance, maybe self-assurance. 

The unusual special effect of falling snow enlivens the image and adds depth. But the snowflakes carefully bypass the men’s alabaster faces which pop from the surrounding darkness and visual noise.

Unfortunately there are no identifying notes or marks on the verso, but the Velox stamp box dates it to about 1914.

Vintage Real Photo Postcard
Divided back with Velox stamp on verso

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November Photo of the Month: Queer Pilgrim Edition

November Photo of the Month: Queer Pilgrim Edition

No visit to Plymouth Massachusetts is complete without seeing a real live Pilgrim. Our Pilgrim, let’s call him Paul, is framed by a man on the left, seen from behind and a woman in profile on the right. He stands between them and a stone buttress.

It feels like a stage set. It’s actually the National Monument to the Forefathers, formerly known as the Pilgrim Monument, also known to be the world's largest solid granite monument. But I digress.

Our man and woman, let’s call them Fred and Ethel, keep a polite, or perhaps a safe distance. Does Fred eye Paul with suspicion?

Of course we can’t see his eyes, but look at him. A walking fire hydrant. Feet spread wide, hands deep in his pockets, weight on his left leg, he leans back as if slightly repelled. 

Because I’m telling you, there’s something queer about Paul. First of all, his posture: Do Pilgrims really stand with such studied nonchalance?

And then there’s his costume. While shoulder ruffles add a much needed note of levity, his hat casts such a dark shadow it looks as though he’s wearing a nylon mask. Inevitably the eye drifts below the belt, to bulges and shadows which add a touch of sexual frisson.

I’m beginning to think Paul’s not a real Pilgrim at all. He’s a THEATRE MAJOR!

For Thanksgiving chatter to amuse everyone at the table read this fascinating piece by Matt Baume about Queer Pilgrims.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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October Photo of the Month

October Photo of the Month

Nothing new here, just a couple guys getting ready for a party. Today this intimate, behind the scenes peek hardly seems more radical than watching Mom apply her makeup.

But this snapshot is part of an album which documents the vibrant gay subculture that flourished in Hollywood after WWII. The photographer is unknown; the locations unspecified. Some guests are identified by first and last name in handwritten captions. Others are more cryptic: “Bill A.” and “Bob B.”

This is no random group of revelers. There’s a strong sense of community. Many of the partygoers show up year after year (in different drag, of course). As amusing and entertaining as the photos are, there’s something serious going on. These people challenged the strict gender norms of the day and in doing so, engaged in a glamorous act of defiance.

While they blurred the boundaries of gender identity in Hollywood, the Under Secretary of State John Peurifoy was testifying before a Senate committee in Washington about a "homosexual underground" in the State Department. With the help of Joe McCarthy, he ignited the "Lavender Scare" in 1950.

At the time, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. Gay men and lesbians were considered susceptible to blackmail, thus constituting a security risk. In 1953, President Eisenhower ordered the firing of every gay man and lesbian working for the government. The resulting purge ended careers, ruined lives, and impelled many to suicide.

While not directly connected to this government outrage, there is a shocking double suicide revealed within the pages of the album.

A clipping from the Los Angeles Herald & Express (Nov 17, 1955), tucked between two blank pages, reports “2 Men Take Own Lives in Different Ways.” One of the men, a Beverly Hills hairdresser, William Henry Shaw, was a frequent guest at the annual parties and shows up several times in the album.

The other man, Paul Welty, was a married electrical engineer whose wife “knew of no reason why he would commit suicide.” The article implies a connection between the two suicides. “Paul” appears in the album three times.  


Vintage snapshot from an album of 178 black and white photos.
Dated 1949.
Private Collection.


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