The man who was to become famous as New York photographer “Gebbé” was born as Robert Gebhart, of German descent, on December 20, 1901. His close friend, Lon Hanagan, also of photographic fame, was born on the same date, December 20, 1911, exactly 10 years later to the day. These two men born 10 years apart had a destiny; they were to meet, establish a close and lasting relationship and both were to produce some of the most beautiful photographs of the male body-that the world has ever known.
From the early years of his boyhood, it was obvious that Robert’s talents and interests were special and those of one who was interested in the creative arts. Music and dancing were among them. His tall thin frame was ideal for a dancer’s body. He became a chorus boy in Broadway stage musicals in New York City in the 1920s. Among the many was the Emmerich Kalman musical hit, THE DUTCH GIRL, starring Phoebe Crosby and Irene Dunne in 1925. Other musicals followed. One production he appeared in had a young Johnny Weissmuller in the cast, on his way to fame in the ‘24 and ‘28 Olympics.
Gifted with a great natural artistic expression, Robert’s ability didn’t stop with music and dancing. It was during the ‘20s that he became an expert costume designer sought after by entertainers in show business. Later he changed his skills again and specialized in a different direction.
He designed ladies’ hats for the Tappé Company on 57th Street, off Fifth Avenue. It was here while he worked at the Tappé Company that he changed his last name for professional reasons. He liked the phonetic sound of the word “Tappé” (pronounced Tap-pay) and settled on a similar sound. So he took the first 3 letters of his name Gebhart, and added the letters “be” with an accent mark over the “é”, turning it into “Gebbé” which sounded very much like “Tappé”. His hats became in demand by matrons and society women. He was again very successful.
Bob Gebbé could do anything and do it well. As the 1930s arrived, his versatility expressed itself again as he entered the field of photography. He began to specialize in taking pictures of the male physique. Athletes and men who were into gym training wanted his photographs as a record of their physical progress and for theatrical audition purposes.
Many of Gebbé’s early nude models came from the Washington Baths located in nearby Coney Island. It was patronized by men only and became a popular place for artists and photographers to find subject material. The solarium on the roof of the building was the area where men sunbathed nude and became a well known meeting place in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. As Gebbé’s superb photography became known, men from other activities such as weight training and physique building sought out Gebbé for photographs. His work became famous
In 1936 a young Lon Hanagan arrived in New York City and made friends with artist’s model and gym owner Tony Sansone. But the one physique photographer he was in awe of was Bob Gebbé whose work he had admired in issues of Superman of the time.
Lon had been in New York for a while but had no experience, knowledge or formal training in photography at that time although he was attracted to it and anxious to learn. One day when he had gone to the 63rd Street YMCA to do his exercise and workout program, he saw a man sitting in the lobby with a stack of exquisite photographs he was looking through. Lon noticed the stunning prints and with admiration he began a conversation with the stranger.
The man introduced himself as Robert Gebbé. Once again destiny entered the lives of these two men. As a result of this meeting they became life-long friends. Lon asked Bob Gebbé if he could study photography with him. Gebbé suggested he sit in on some photo sessions when a live model was used, to observe and see how it was done.
It was through these live model sessions that Lon learned basic fundamentals such as lighting, composition, mood, and the correct posing of a model. Gebbé instructed him, never let the toes on the feet face each other, for they must be placed in opposite directions. As a result of Gebbé’s influence, the Lon technique that we now know today in his photographs, evolved from these Gebbé “training” sessions.
Gebbé lived in a huge spacious 5-room apartment. The kind you could lease in the
1930s when rents were very low. He lived with his two sisters, Emma and Florence,
at 270 West 43rd Street and remained in that building for the rest of his life. It was
a split apartment shared with his two sisters. Bob used the two front rooms, one
adapted as a photo studio, and the two girls used the other 3 rooms in back.
The Gebbé physique photographs were now appearing in nationally known publications like Strength & Health in the U.S. and in England in the magazine called Superman. But it wasn’t until 1937-38-39 that Gebbé began to advertise model photos for sale of his most famous poser, the handsome Monroe Brown. At that time there were only a tiny handful of photographers advertising pictures for sale. In Strength & Health, John Hernic had been the first to advertise in January 1935, followed by the famous Bitter Brothers who offered their pictures a few months later. By comparison, Gebbé didn’t go public until the late ‘30s. In those years, selling pictures by mail was a fledgling enterprise.
What makes the Gebbé photographs so superb? I have examined dozens of his photos in magazines and I note (1) the purity of expression and composition in his work, (2) a great simplicity in his style with complete concentration on the male
body with no distractions from other objects such as props, etc., and (3) a very appealing sensual quality in his nudes. There was no one like Gebbé. His early work concentrates the physique against plain white backgrounds which were ideal for magazine reproduction. As time passed he added simple props like a vase or a spear or pole. In the late ‘40s Corinthian columns appeared.
He used a standard lighting set up for many of his pictures and did not change that too much, but instead, as previously mentioned, focused on the body itself. His lighting is High-Key, which means brightly lit settings or shadowless photography. His backgrounds were pure white, clean and bright. He used a Zeiss 9x12 centimeters camera that gave him brilliant detail on a large negative. Lon was so impressed seeing the equipment, that he, too, bought the exact same camera. It was the equivalent of American-made 4x5 size cameras.
The beautiful Gebbé studies of Monroe Brown have never been equaled for they express art in it’s purest form. At the other end of the scale there were those awkward models who were difficult to work with, didn’t pose well or couldn’t take direction to achieve a good pose. Gebbé had to overcome these problems and make everyone look good regardless and he did.
Over the years Lon and Bob Gebbé saw each other constantly. They would often visit one another, taking turns at each’s apartment. Sometimes after a long, tiring day, Gebbé would go to Lon’s home to relax. There in the semi-darkness these two masters of physique art would listen to Lon’s phonograph playing 78 rpm recordings of Brahms and Rachmaninoff, while they drank their favorite beverage of the time, grapefruit juice laced with gin.
There were also those weekly Saturday night parties at Lon’s, an open house with many famous people attending. Gebbé was always among the guests enjoying himself. He liked New York delicatessen style food and frequented the stores for his favorite dishes quite often.
Bob Gebbé was a quiet, unassuming, conservative person; a kind man who cared about others and what happened to them. He thought nothing of his artistic gifts. To him they were as natural as breathing; something he took for granted. He had no ego. His talents flowed effortlessly and easily and he made the best use of them.
If one reviews the back files of Strength & Health magazine from the 1940s such as I have been able to do, you will find a galaxy of superb physiques and the men who built them at the time. Gebbé recorded these men on film and made exquisite photos of these weightlifters and athletes which were published in the ‘40s.
Among them were: Andrew Bostino, Paul Como, Terry Robinson, Al Mentz,
Arthur Robinson, Allan Tresser, Melvin Kahn, Morris Markoff, Howard
Eastman, John Beleaco, Perry Mittleman, Bill Cerda, Sal Cravert, Jack
Kleinberg, Clement Aliverto, Leonard Coleman, Phil Deutch, John Danza,
Fred Massaro, Joe Hanson, Martin Gagliano, Roy Sokoler, Kimon Voyages, Val Pasqua,
Rene Clayton and many others. My research shows Gebbé magazine covers on issues of S&H for the years 1942-43-44-45-49.
In the late 1940s, Gebbé expanded his contributions to the physique world by submitting photos to the Weider Publications. Gebbé photos appeared in YOUR PHYSIQUE and MUSCLE POWER magazines. During the time he was active in photography, Gebbé supported himself by working for Macy’s Department Store on 34th Street. He was a window display man, creating eye-catching windows of furniture and merchandise. He was employed by Macy’s for many years.
In the 1960s, Gebbé retired from making a living and did very little with his photography after having been active in the profession for over 20 years. Other events had happened too. Emma had died.
One day in 1971 he was with Florence walking with her along a downtown Manhattan street when he suddenly collapsed and fell to the sidewalk. He was stricken with a heart attack and died instantly. He was 70 years old. His estate was left to his sister Florence. Thinking that the thousands of old Gebbé negatives left behind were of no value to anyone, Florence destroyed them. His life’s work was gone. It was one of those tragedies that has happened to many physique photographers.
Today surviving Gebbé prints are very rare and difficult to locate anywhere. They exist only in private collections of those who were able to collect them years ago. Based on the current market value or such rare items, if one owned 100 Gebbé prints, 8x10 size, such a collection would probably be worth $10,000 or more.