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December 04, 1999
Alonzo James Hanagan
The following interview with Lon of New York comes from TORSO magazine 12-1996 Vol 14 #5 ©1996 Matthew Rettenmund who very graciously has given us permission to reproduce it here at The Archive. All rights reserved.
Beefcake 'The word immediately conjures up the image of a well; endowed young muscle man in a historical costume.flaunting his physique. But ''beefcake'' has actually become a blanket term for a uniquely merican genre of photography that was nonetheless actively suppressed by the United States Post Office arid law enforcement officials who believed that the nude male form is inherently pornographic. ''They were going through my studio and couldnt find anything indecent," says legendary photographer Lon Hanagan. recalling one raid. ''They looked at one picture and said. 'A-ha.' I see a pubic hair! You're under arrest."
"That gave then the right to destroy every thing. They destroyed negatives and trampled over everything. And I said. "Come on. now. that's family stuff.' And they said, "You degenerate! People like you should be annihilated." I said. 'What did I do that was so bad.'' And the detective said. 'You know what you did. you lousy, lousy queer. The world would be better off to be rid of your kind.' And these were our people.
The cops busted Hanagan, better known as Lon of New York, twice. They confiscated his cameras and equipment arid wiped out images of hundreds of handsome young men whose shining torsos and tastefully flaccid penises they deemed too vulgar to exist. The police -- those connoisseurs Of fine art -- are charged to serve and protect. but as was Lons experience, it's sometimes unclear just whose interests they're serving. Books and magazines are still routinely confiscated at the U.S./Canadian border, and the rel religious right has intensified its quest for "family values'' to the point where censorship is still a major issue today, in America. in the 1990s.
Such harassment and strict enforcement of vague ''obscenity" laws was especially common when dealing with the Gay photographers who made their artistic statements and their livings by photographing bodybuilders in and out of posing straps and selling the results to thousands of other Gay men around the world. Such photographs sometimes fooled censors, functioning as loopholes in the law in that nothing overtly sexual was occuring on the surtace. Still. they were were unmistakably homoerotic, sensual, even though Hanagan asserts that the vast majority of his subjects weren't even Gay. So no matter their superficial content. they were frequently seized simply because authorities eventually understood that they were pinups of the boys for the boys -- almost universally -- by the boys.
There is no question that physique photography was used as fantasy material at the time of creation, even if the photographers themselves knew that no matter the erotic content, they were creating art directly influenced by Renaissance painting and classic Greek sculpture. After all, what is The David if not very old, three-dimensional beefcake?
But now, just as Bunny Yeager's exquisitely rendered cheesecake poses of Bettie Page have become popular again, physique photography -- defined by artists like Bob Mizer of Athletic Model Guild, Bruce of L.A. and Lon of New York has made a comeback. This time, the photographs are recognized as works of art. They are out in the open arid wouldn't raise a postal inspector's eyebrow or cause a beat cop to look twice if they were displayed in a shop window, but they are causing a new generation of Gay artists and collectors to sit up and take notice.
That's fine by Lon of New York. who has always felt his work deserved to be seen as art and not pornography -- that's what he told the police when they raided his studio. Decades later, there is no way to mistake the historical and artistic importance of these photos. photos, that were obtained by enthusiasts at great personal ris,. hidden under mattresses, locked in safe deposit boxes and frequently disposed of by dismayed heirs.
Lori's 25-year career spanned from the late '30s to the early '60s, when he decided he'd had his fill of hassles arid focused instead on performing arid teaching tlie piano. Celebrating his 85th Birthdaty on December 20th, Lori still takes in some pupils. and he remembers his former career iii photography with pride.
To an extent. his memories have to make up for a lack of tangible momentos -- for 30 years, Lon paid storage fees on a suitcase full of prints, negatives and magazines with his work on their covers, and this tiny cache today makes up all he has left his lifework.
Together with friend and fellow photographer Jim Speciale and a German book publisher, lie was able to pull together an impressive array of photos to represet that body of work, which has been published as a retrospective called LON of NEW YORK (Janssen, $40).
Looking through this high quality coffee-table book, you can't help wondering about Lon of New York, the photographer whose love of men and muscle drove him to persevere in the face of legal hurdles and social condemnation. Fortunately, he is happy to fill us in.
Lon was born Alonzo James Hanagan on Decertiher 20, 1911. As a teenager, Lon recalls becoming infatuated with bodybuilding star and aggressive entrepreneur Tony Sansone, just as today's Gay youth might secretly flip for Dean Cain or Brad Pitt. Sansone ran a mail order business, selling photographs of his prize-winning form -- often by the famed Townsend -- to admirers like Lon.
''I was very impressed with Tony Sansone,'' Lon recalls fondly ''He was the most magnificent thing I'd ever seen." Sansone, a charming peacock , boldly inscribed all the photos Lon purchased. "To A.J. Hanagan, a devotee of the beautiful."
''After while of buying his photos in the mail, Tony Sansone wrote me and said, "Lon, perhaps you'd like to buy some nudes." And I thought that would be wonderful!" I used to hang around for the postman to comebecause I didn't want my family to know about it. You don't know how they're going to react."
Some things never change.
When Lori moved to New York in 1936 at 25, he looked Sansone up and was welcomed into his entourage, often accompanying the muscleman to the Coney Island beach -- right alongside Sansone's wife and kids. This goodwill carried over to the models Lon would eventually photograph -- he remains friends with many of the men and their wives.
After Sansone. the next importarit figure Lon encountered in the big city Robert Gebhart. who worked under the more exotic name of Gebbé. Gebbé was a renowned physique photographer (arid costume designer) who took Lon under his wing, teaching himi the basics in lighting and composition. Lon had already been bitten by the photography bug after teaching art and music at a YMCA boy's camp, but now he was preparing to merge his interest in the male form with his newfound photographic knowledge. Though he was studying at Juilliard, music quickly took a backseat when his photos made a splash in magazines of the era like Your Physique.
Lon proudly remembers tlie first time his work made a cover.
"It was on an English magazine [Superman]. The first model I ever photographed was a young Italian boy . . . lo and behold. he made the cover right away. I was very excited and thrilled by the thought that my photography was recognized."
His reputation abroad secured. Lon didn't have long to wait he attained similar status in America. In 1941, Lon hit the jackpot: An extraordinary session with quintessential bodybuilder John Grimek landed him a cover layout in Strength and Health. The results made such a splash that instead of Lon having to pay models, bodybuilders sought him out. "Strange to say, they all came to me. Nearly all of them, I'd say 90%."
Since his work had been so well-received, one of the magazines offered Lon free ad space, which prompted his launching of a mail order business so successful that it led to a full studio in Manhattan on 47th Street and fifth Avenue. If you think those Calvin Klein billboards in Times Square are distracting, image seeing Lon's studio in the '40s, which featured life-sized prints of his work in all the windows. In fact, Calvin Klein's ad campaigns owe much to the beefcake tradition. Whether it's Markv Mark or Antonio Sabato, Jr., hustling for CK, they are invariably in skimpy clothes and fine form.
Lon's first catalog, Connoisseur Album No.1, offered for sale his first portfolio series, entitled "Photographic Statuary." Nudes were too risky to advertise so blatantly, so like Adam before them, each of his models was modestly covered by a fig leaf. What they had that Adam hadn't was the touch of groundbreaking Gay painter George Quaintance, a friend and neighbor of Lon's who would pop over and paint luminous leaves directly on Lon's prints.
Over the years, Lon edited and published several magazines of his own, among them Male Model Parade, Men and Art and Star Models, all distinguished by his careful eye.
The atmosphere at a typical shoot would be far from idyllic, despite the relaxed, graceful poses he captured.
''Keep in mind, there was rio flash in those days."
The physical aspects of setting up the necessary lighting were incredibly complex and demanding, and positioning the lights in such a way as to show off a model's particular strengths was time-consuming. To even things out, Lon played classical music while the models posed, and you can almost hear it in some of his most elegant photographs.
Lon deviated from the blond surfer boy or Italion stallion molds commonly associated with the genre by shooting dozens of black and Latin models.
''I' m particularly interested in a magnificent body," Lon explains. "What mattered the color as long as a man was beautiful? I liked to photograph Black men because I didn't think they were getting a fair shake and I thought they should be recognize. At that time, there would never be a Black Mr. America or Mr. Universe or anything like that. I wanted to contribute to the idea that they were equal and in many ways superior in physique to white people."
Along with the magazines and catalogs, his selling techniques also incorporated in-person runs to other major cities, where Lon would notify clients that he was arriving with a selection of photos for sale, then sell his work right out of a carrying case in his hotel room. Only things didn't always go smoothly.
''I went to Chicaco with a suitcase brimf'ul of pictures. It broke open and there were physique nudes all over the train station! Thank God it happened to he two or three in the morning. It was like a lot of money out there!"
Beefcake photography sold like hotcakes because it appealed to the aesthetic ideal of supermasculinity -- even if it was exhibited in a way traditionally reserved for female beauty. Gay men who had to feign heterosexuality could revel in unadulterated maleness in their stash of nudes. Lon was disinterested in prospective models who camped it up or looked effeminate -- it was extreme masculinity that he sought to portray in his work, and his motto had always been, "You can love a man, and you can still be a man."
Its interesting then that he also photographed many drag queens in studio portraits so glamorous they look like they could have given Lana Turner a run for her money. He laughs recalling how many queens swarmed his studio once they saw how he'd made their f'riends look like bombshells. Lon was able to hold on to a nuimber of those photos, and today they are priceless historical documents of drag life iri the '40s and '50s. They are probably among the only existing high-quality photographs of real-life queens from that era.
One of the drag queens he shot was notorious among Lon's beach-going group. "There was this queen we used to call 'Fuckf'ace Lola.' Well, she was very bold. There'd be a lady on the beach with her little kids and Lola wouild say, 'What are you looking at me for? Yes, yes. I do those things. I 'm a queer! Look at me! Enjoy me!'' Echoing the preference of discretion and dignity over in-your-face boldness that many older Gay men share with a good number of today's Gay community, Lon asserts, "That, I don't like. She was terrible." Still, he's quick to good-naturedly add, ''But -- she was as a lot of fun!"
Lon was aware of' other beefcake photographers, whose work was similar to his own, though each brought something unique to their interpretations. Lon was very friendly with the late Bruce of L. A. (Janssen also published a collection of his work), whose style benefited from his association with Lon, but he never really knew Bob Mizer, whose Athletic Model Guild was thriving on the West Coast. Though they were in the same business. Lon didn't view AMG as a rival.
"I never felt competition. l'm me. Bob was himself."
There seemed to be more than enough room for these and other, lesser-known photographers to create and market their work. This is one reason that even though most archives have been depleted over the years (with thie exception of AMG, which is still in business years after founder Mizer's death). original physique photos still exist. So many men purchased print s from so many photographers -- the sheer numbers ensured that despite homophobia. accidents and time, a nuniber of photos would survise somewhere. Now, they are available from speciality services and antiques dealers, fetching anywhere from $20 to several hundred dollars, depending on the condition and thie pose.
During the '50s, after years of success. Lon moved into a Luxuirious West End apartment that had, ironically, once belonged to Mae West, another aficionado of bodybuilders. Her racy stage act. launched in 1954. featured men who had already bared all for various physique photographers. and she was rarely seen without one in tow for years to come. Her former apartment provided Lon with some of his best backgrounds, with its marble touches, ornate carved-wood paneling, stained glass and elegant architecture, settings that perfectly complemented his classical leanings.
Lon's talent afforded him the company of a very elite group of designers, artists and bona fide movie stars, so it's easy to see why he thinks Gay was even better in the '40s than it is in the '90s.
"I want to tell you truthfully -- despite the problems I've talked about, I think it was much better t then than it is now. There was more closeness."
Jim Speciale, in his introduction to LON of NEW YORK, describes the photographer's "Saturday night soirees" as legendary. They attracted the likes of Gay prettyboy Sal Mineo. glamorous actress Rhonda Fleming and her equally glamorous husband Fernando Lamas. pseudo-Incan songbird Yma Sumac, and one "very. famous dancer who wound up in a dark corner with a model who happened to be a married man. Lon enjoys teasing listeners about the wild times shared by some of the closeted Gay and bisexual celebrities he rubbed elbows with. but wild horses won't drag out their names because he feels that -- even after their deaths -- it would be unethical. Not surprisingly, some of his juiciest and most ribald stories slip out after the tape recorder is defused and safely tucked away.
If the '50s were prosperous for Lon, they were also tumultuous. as local citizens' groups and the police stepped up censorship activities. By the early '60s. Lon was fed up with legal run-ins and the destruction of his work. This was when he parceled away what remained of his collection and returned to his music.
After his retirement. the boundaries of permissibility gradually widened, and photographers were soon dispensing with the posing straps and focusing on sexual arousal and even sex acts. Lon isn't averse to pornography. but be never saw himself as a pornographer, so he wouldn't have been willing to go that route anyway even if he'd continued making pictures.
"They allow so much now," he observes. and it must be galling since he asked for so little leeway with his own work, and yet was stymied time and again. "I'd say comparing my photography with pornography is like comparing classical music with rock and roll." There's room for both and you can like both or either, but they are undeniably different."
0f Gay liberation, which kicked into high gear just a few years after his last session. Lon sighs. "That's long after me. I thought it was very good. except some of them stick their necks out in the wrong way instead of doing it in a dignified way. They make some people dislike them all the more." He is pleased with the general direction if not the tactics, and hopes that conditions continue to improve for Gay peopIe. He's watched as Gay people have attained greater visibility, all the while being an openly Gay artist himself since before the term "Gay" was even popularized.
Jim Speciale notes in LON of NEW YORK that "Most of his photos did not survive." But some did, and Lon did. and now the artist is enjoying the renewed interest in his medium. There are hopes for an exhibit of his work in a Manhattan gallery. a prospect that would've been called ludicrous in the '50s but which now is expected to draw widespread critical attention and a steady flow of viewers and patrons.
At least one devotee of the beautiful is glad the rest of the world has finally caught up with him.