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Dave Martin, San Francisco Physique Photographer

"I resent people putting that label on my work: 'gay.' They're just bodies.”

– Photographer Dave Martin in a 2006 interview with Jim Provenzano

True, there’s nothing inherently “gay” about his photographs of naked young bodybuilders, college athletes, cops and Marines. They’re just well-proportioned, muscular, unclothed bodies. “Gay” is something viewers bring to the images. But to be fair, like orchids that evolved to attract a particular pollinator, Martin’s nudes have always captivated the gay gaze. 

Maybe part of the allure is that he actively sought straight athletes to create his images of “masculinity.” Rarely (if ever) do men appear together in his photos. Martin said the models simply posed for money. "They responded to job postings. In the early 50s, it was $5 an hour, a considerable sum. You have to have the ability to talk to people and explain what you want, to get some kind of communication going. That is an art."

In the 1940s Martin was encouraged by Alonzo Hanagan (AKA Lon of New York), one of the most successful early physique photographers. "I remember sitting in Lon's kitchen. I said, 'I'm going to move to San Francisco.'" In 1948 he did, opening his studio in 1951. Controlling every step of the photographic process, he became known for his darkroom proficiency and high quality prints. 

Martin occasionally photographed his naked men in public locations including the Golden Gate Bridge, Baker Beach and Half Moon Bay. His studio settings are spare with only the occasional prop: a football, chain, column or screen. While some of his models flex for the camera, others are casually relaxed as if they just happened to be naked when Martin took the photo.

He was briefly jailed for obscenity charges in the 50s. Some of his photos and negatives were confiscated and destroyed. It was, after all, a dangerous business. Under the Comstock Act, it was illegal to send “obscene,” “immoral,” or “indecent” publications through the U.S. Postal Service (much like the restrictions we face today on platforms like eBay, Instagram and Shopify). 

Martin is considered a pioneer in the genre, alongside (but less well-known than) fellow California physique photography legends Bob Mizer and Bruce of LA. Comparing their images of Bud Counts (below) Martin's informal, natural style is easily distinguished from the camp fantasy of Bob Mizer and the Hollywood elegance of Bruce. Martin's Bud looks pretty much like he would if you were lucky enough to catch sight of him at the beach. 

Dave Martin photograph of Bud Counts Bud Counts AMG photo Bud Counts Bruce of LA
Bud Counts by Dave Martin

Bud Counts by Bob Mizer

Bud Counts by Bruce of LA

His photos were frequently published in muscle magazines including Strength & Health, Tomorrow’s Man, Vim, and Body Beautiful. For unknown reasons his photographic career ended in 1974.

There is one monograph of his work, Dave Martin (American Photography of the Male Nude 1940-1970, Vol. 3), published by Jannsen Press in 2001.

In 2003, he donated 2,600 prints to Stanford University’s Green Library Special Collections, where they’re available for researchers. He refused to attend the 2006 exhibit of his work organized by Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. "The exhibition should be done after my death, as I asked, but they wouldn't listen to me." 

Dave Martin died in San Francisco, age 91, in 2014. He never publicly came out.