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History of gay male nude erotica to be explored at new free London exhibition

By Will Stroude

Today, with David Beckham and David Gandy lounging on billboards in their well stuffed underpants or the entire French Rugby team posing undressed in calendars, it’s easy to take photographs of the naked male for granted.

But it wasn’t always so.

In Britain pre-1967, it was nearly impossible to publish full-frontal images of naked men. Never mind pornographic or homoerotic, we’re talking unaroused, flaccid nudes.

Sending a nude selfie via Her Majesty’s Postal Service could land you in court. Too much definition in the posing pouch got you prison time.

Now, a new London exhibition is showing how a raft of photographers, in America and in Europe, used the sport of bodybuilding and its related publications to gradually chip away at the prohibitions.

They sexed up the poses, queered the presentation, published magazines and even designed the outfits to reveal as much as possible. They deliberately engineered an alternative positive gay self-image.

One of the British photographers, ‘Vince’, pioneered Carnaby Street to cater to the demand for the sexy kit his images showed. The pictures from studios such as Athletic Model Guild or Scott of London are still hot and sexy, but what looks joyfully camp today often got the photographers jail time.

Model Men, which is showing at London’s Menier Gallery until 12 August and is accompanied by a 64-page publication, charts the destruction of the entire output of some photographers, many of whom were ruined by the experience and so traumatised they would not bear to talk about it in old age.

The curator, artist Guy Burch, was concerned that the anniversary exhibitions planned for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 act were in danger of forgetting it was actually about sex.

He says that since the rules on sex and the rules on art (2015 also marks the 160th anniversary of the 1857 Obscene Publications Act) were parallel constraints, the physique artists seemed a good way to show how far we have come.

He has also included some contemporary takes, pairing old with new, including Manchester fetish photographer Sly Hands (who sadly died recently) with the outrageous 1950s British photographer Basil Clavering’s soldiers and squaddies.

Times have thankfully changed, and Clavering’s work is now on Australian chocolate boxes, bringing new meaning to the phrase, ‘looks good enough to eat’.

Model Men is at London’s Menier Gallery until August 12, Monday-Saturday. Admission is free.

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