Before Thirst Traps, There Was the Athletic Model Guild

Saturday January 8, 2022
Originally published on December 29, 2021

Before laws regarding censorship were relaxed in the late 1960s, there was little outlet for gay pornography. Instead there were physique magazines that featured smooth, largely natural-fit men wearing posing straps. Full nudity was forbidden. The big change occurred in 1969 when erections were first seen in print. But as Dr. Marcus Bunyan points out when writing about a 2014 exhibit about gay erotic art pioneers Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland: "Finland is famous for his sexually-charged drawings, while Mizer chose more modest, even prurient queer images of young men in posing straps."

More playful than erotic, the images are largely innocent by today's standards — closer, really, to what are considered thirst traps today. Such magazines were one of the few outlets for gay culture to exist in the repressive post-war era, when being homosexual was akin to being a communist. They were often hidden away in magazine stands and largely unknown to the public at large; but to the subculture they were aimed at, they were a vital, welcome resource.

According to his website, MIzer is the forerunner to such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, David Hockney, Jim French, Bruce Weber and Andy Warhol. And over the years he photographed career a number of soon-to-be Hollywood actors, including Glenn Corbett, Tab Hunter and Dennis Cole, as well as then body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger, Andy Warhol's star Joe Dallesandro, and contemporary artist Jack Pierson. He was called the Cecil B. DeMille of the posing pouch.

"Working out of his house in Los Angeles, Mizer created his legendary studio, Athletic Model Guild, part business, part watering hole and wayward house for youths, but primarily ground zero for the new era of male imagery.  Using home made sets, or light and slide projections, Bob Mizer prefigured what would later become 'constructed' photography in the early 1980s."

In his magazine "Physique Pictorial," Mizer featured mostly black-and-white pics of nearly nude, athletic young men. He began his career in the late 1940s as a physique photographer working at Venice Beach's Muscle Beach. But his pics landed him on a prison farm for a year for distributing obscenity through the mail. Undaunted, he came up with the idea of a posing magazine aimed at a gay audience.

He often found himself in trouble with the law, even serving additional time in 1968 after being convicted of running a prostitution ring. During that year, "Physique Pictorial" only published sporadically. And after 1969, it went full-frontal. After his death at the age of 70 in 1992, AMC continued under Wayne Stanley, but without the driving personality of Mizer, the large collection went up for sale in 1994. He was a very successful photographer, meticulously cataloging his photographs and using innovative techniques in his work.

"Bob Mizer has never been considered a great artist," reads his website. "Despite his obvious impact on visual culture, and proclamations of his influence from renowned art world figures like David Hockney, he has, until now, been relegated to the world of outsider art, camp, or kitsch. He may not have received the acclaim he is due, but then the real Bob Mizer, the multi-faceted photographer with a keen eye for color and composition and a truly unique vision of American masculinity, has yet to make his debut."

Given the extensive volume of Mizer's work, it isn't surprising that the Athletic Model Guild's Instagram page would have more than 2,000 posts. Here's a sample: