This past summer, M+B Photo in Los Angeles presented a fantastic exhibition of the work of Bob Mizer. It was too good to overlook so, better late than never, here it is.
“I feel more strength now than ever before, but this strength, this driving energy, shall be carefully bridled and directed with wisdom . . . My ambition is everything — pleasure, physical sensations mean nothing compared to great accomplishments.”
– Bob Mizer in a letter to his mother from a prison work camp, May 28, 1947.
Born in Hailey, Idaho in 1922, Mizer began his exploration and documentation of the male physique in 1945 when, at the age of twenty-four, he photographed the gymnast Forester Miller in the parlor of the home he shared with his mother. Soon after, Mizer began photographing in and around Muscle Beach, the infamous park outfitted with exercise equipment just south of the Santa Monica Pier. Mizer saw no need for discretion and soon befriended the bodybuilders. He learned of the men’s eagerness for photographs of themselves and, convincing his mother to surrender her parlor as a studio, offered free prints in exchange for modeling. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the subculture of illicit physique nudes, Mizer took the Hollywood star-system approach and founded the Athletic Model Guild, a film and photo studio specializing in handsome boy-nextdoor talent.
At a time when homosexuality was criminalized in the United States, Mizer’s photographs were subversive and inherently political. Mizer always presented an unashamed and gregarious approach to male nudity and intimate physical contact between men. For his perspective on eroticized representation alone, Mizer is often ranked with Alfred Kinsey at the forefront of the sexual revolution. More importantly to a gay community still in its infancy, the photographs were an early and courageously visible representation of the gay liberation movement, which urged lesbians and gay men to engage in radical direct action and to counter societal shame with gay pride.
This brazen eschewal of the norms of the day did not go unnoticed by the authorities. At this time American censorship laws permitted women, but not men, to be photographed partially nude, so long as the result was “artistic” in nature. In 1947, Mizer was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor by taking pictures of a seventeen-year-old and subsequently served a yearlong prison sentence at a desert work camp in Saugus, California. He ran afoul of the US government again in 1954 when he was convicted of the unlawful distribution of obscene material through the US mail. The material in question was a series of black and white photographs, taken by Mizer, of young bodybuilders wearing what were known as posing straps—a precursor to the G-string.
Upon his release from prison, he continued working undeterred, founding the groundbreaking magazine Physique Pictorial in 1951, which also debuted the work of other homoerotic artists such as Tom of Finland, Quaintance and many others. Models included future Andy Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro, actors Glenn Corbett, Alan Ladd, Susan Hayward, Victor Mature and actor-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. During the mid twentieth century, Mizer was one of the only photographers exploring the male form with an unabashedly homoerotic gaze, thus making his photographs hugely impactful to later artists who drew inspiration from his work and added to their cult-like following. Through his photographs and films, Mizer influenced the work of Gore Vidal, Robert Mapplethorpe and David Hockney, who first came to America partially to meet Mizer and used his photographs as source material for some of his well-know paintings.
Robert Henry Mizer (1922 – 1992), known as Bob Mizer, was a trailblazing photographer, filmmaker and publisher. His work has been exhibited widely in the US and internationally, including the landmark exhibition Bob Mizer & Tom of Finland at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2014. In 2009, Taschen published Bob’s World: The Life and Boys of AMG’s Bob Mizer, a monograph accompanied by an oral history with contributing artists David Hockney, Jack Pierson and John Sonsini. This was followed in 2016 by the extensive two-volume edition of Bob Mizer. AMG: 1000 Model. Mizer’s photos are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The artist’s archive is held with the The Bob Mizer Foundation, which is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of progressive and controversial photography.