London show celebrates the male physique in photography, from muscle hunks to scruffy punks

‘A Hard Man is Good to Find!’ – newly open at London’s Photographers’ Gallery – ​​is a delectable survey of queer photographs of the male body created in London between the 1930s and early 1990s

Keith Vaughan, Highgate Men’s Pond Album, 1933 in ‘A Hard Man is Good to Find!’
Keith Vaughan, Highgate Men’s Pond Album, 1933
(Image credit: Courtesy Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries)

At The Photographers’ Gallery, London, male-physique lovers can have their beefcake and eat it too. Dishing up more than a hundred photographs – in addition to magazines, personal albums and photo sheets – the exhibition ‘A Hard Man is Good to Find!’ is a feast for the eyes.  

Titled after American actress Mae West’s famous quote, the exhibition spans 60 years of queer image-making, from svelte bathers to muscle hunks and scruffy punks. It is divided into half a dozen sections, which map out subcultural territories of the British capital, from Hampstead Heath to Portobello and Euston.

‘In the early part of the 20th century, homosexuality was illegal,’ the exhibition curator Alistair O’Neill notes as we walk through the gallery’s baby-pink walls. Despite the 1955 Wolfenden Report – which recommended the depenalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults – and the subsequent 1967 Sexual Offences Act – which marked the partial decriminalisation of gay sex – Britain’s obscenity laws remained a considerable obstacle for the production of homoerotic imagery. ‘Representations of the male nude came under considerable scrutiny and the ability for queer men to look at other men in states of undress was fairly limited,’ continues O’Neill, who teaches Fashion History and Theory at London’s Central Saint Martins.

Angus McBean, David Dulak, 1946

Angus McBean, David Dulak, 1946

(Image credit: Courtesy Rupert Smith Collection)

The exhibition starts strongly with a rarely seen collage series by British painter Keith Vaughan, dated from 1933. It features cut-out photographs of thong-wearing sunbathers taken by the then-21-year-old artist at Highgate Men’s Pond. Superposed with textual elements over monochromatic olive-green backgrounds, the images are compiled in a diary-style photobook that is on display behind a glass cabinet, while enlarged prints of individual pages are reproduced on a wall. 

‘He’d just purchased a Leica camera and turned his bedroom in his mother’s house in West Hampstead into his dark room,’ O’Neill recounts. ‘He wouldn’t have been able to print these commercially because of the nature of the images.’ At once scenic and suggestive, they play with contrast and repetition in remarkably modernist ways that prefigure elements of Richard Hamilton’s early Pop Art. Interestingly, the presence of jockstraps in the photographs suggests that the famed undergarment did not become a gay symbol in 1950s America with the advent of magazines such as Physique Pictorial, as is often assumed. (For fans of the latter, a rare posing pouch lovingly crafted by its publisher Bob Mizer’s mother is on display in the adjacent annexe room.)

Basil Clavering, (Royale, Hussar, Dolphin), Mail order Storyette print, late 1950s

Basil Clavering, (Royale, Hussar, Dolphin). Mail order Storyette print, late 1950s

(Image credit: Courtesy Rupert Smith Collection)

It’s not all about sex: many works in the show are imbued with an irresistible camp quality, too. Chief among them, the 1950s ‘storyettes’ – catalogue photo sheets assembled into a narrative – demonstrate their makers’ imaginative use of humour. Conceived to discreetly advertise erotic prints to order by mail, storyettes were initiated by sailor-turned-cinema owner Basil Clavering from his basement studio in Pimlico. To avoid scrutiny, Clavering assembled the images like film stills, orchestrating comical scenarios in which military men are seen progressively undressing, flexing their muscles in front of a mirror and eventually ironing each other’s uniforms in the nude. ‘It’s kind of seaside postcard humour,’ O’Neill laughs, ‘or like a drag pantomime.’

At times, the exhibition’s desire to illustrate one community’s efforts to produce and circulate radical images eclipses critical issues such as consent and exploitation. For instance, 1930s erotic images of working-class guardsmen exchanging sex and consumerist pleasures for money; street and intimate portraits of 1980s punks catfished in the streets of King’s Cross under the pretence of a false Vogue campaign, and lists of models’ names categorised by race all point to complex power dynamics that the show does little to address or contextualise. 

Martin Spenceley, 1980s.Courtesy of the Michael Carnes Collection

Martin Spenceley, 1980s

(Image credit: Courtesy of the Michael Carnes Collection)

Thankfully, the final display brings some much-needed nuance to this narrative with a glimpse into the Brixton Art Gallery’s development. Opened in 1983 under a railway arch, it was run by an artist collective including the likes of Ajamu X, Franko B and Guy Burch, whose queer and intersectional work was largely excluded from mainstream exhibition spaces. One arresting portrait by the late Nigerian photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode – a prominent figure of the Black British Art scene and founding member of the activist art organisation Autograph – shows a Black nude model gazing at the camera through a Venetian long nose mask, his genitals covered in gold paint. Titled The Golden Phallus, the work was made in 1989 to address colonial stereotypes in the climate of the Aids crisis, namely Robert Mapplethorpe’s fetishist depiction of Black male nudes. 

‘A Hard Man is Good to Find!’ is a delectable show that compellingly traces the proliferation of an otherwise undermined visual subculture. Enjoy it while it’s hot.

‘A Hard Man is Good to Find!’, until 11 June 2023, The Photographers' Gallery, London.