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Feb 25 2007
Life's Work: An Interview With Beefcake Photographer Lon Of New York Comments (6)

Ten years ago, I received a review copy of a new book published by Janssen Verlag called American Photography Of The Male Nude: 1940—1970: Lon of New York. It was the second in the series of three, sandwiched between Bruce of L.A. and Dave Martin, both photographers with whom I was very familiar. (There have since been four more published—Douglas of Detroit, Pat Milo Al Urban and Bob Mizer.) I'd never heard of Alonzo Hanagan, but the book was beautiful, full of classic male nudes in a variety of shades. I’d always wondered about that period of photography—and of gay history—considering that so many of the muscle-bound posers were ostensibly straight (or what passed for it back before gay rights drew a necessary line in the sand). If it was terrifying to be gay back in the day, what drew so many men who probably did not i.d. as gay first and foremost to pose nearly or totally nude for gay mens’ lenses and eyeballs?

When I realized Lon was still alive and residing in New York (in Mae West's old digs...get her!), I requested an interview, never dreaming he’d say yes. He said yes and I dutifully showed up at his brownstone, where I found him to be somewhat the worse for wear but still kicking—and with the memory of an elephant. Lon was in boxers and a robe and not terribly mobile. I was scared to death taping him because in those days I had an analog tape recorder that worked on sound, so as a small voice drifted out of the large man I was desperately hoping I would not lose his words.

Lon’s caretaker/peer/friend told me he was going back to photography, and in fact he did show at Wessel + O’Connor. I can’t imagine his 1990s works could truly be attributed to him—he just didn’t exhibit a coherent, creative spark when I spoke with him—but he was certainly indomitable.

I published the interview in an issue of Torso, and I understand Lon was very pleased with how I’d framed his story. Chatting with him felt like a rare opportunity to get some insight into a lost time about which I’d had a lot of faulty assumptions—for one thing, he was not at all enthusiastic about “gay libbers.” Hmmm. I guess the gay-rights advocates alienated all the trade. But he was nonetheless heroic as an artist and as a gay man in that he openly practiced his art and his commerce, dealing with prison and harassment.

Since then, I’ve acquired some of Lon’s work, and I cherish the few pieces I have—after all, Lon himself had very, very few prints and negatives of his own work, some of which he’d kept in one storage trunk for decades. The bulk of his work was destroyed as pornography and no longer exists, and Lon himself died in December of 1999, so any time I see any of his creations still floating around I’m relieved.

Here is my original piece with no editing and its original title. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to write this.

Photographer Lon of New York and the Rebirth of Beefcake

LIFE'S WORK

by Matthew Rettenmund

Beefcake.

The word immediately conjures up the image of a well-endowed young muscleman in a historical costume, flaunting his physique. But "beefcake" has actually come to be used as a blanket term for a genre of photography that is as uniquely American as jazz music and yet was actively suppressed by the United States Post Office and law enforcement officials who believed that the nude male form is inherently pornographic.

"They were going through my studio and couldn’t find anything indecent," says legendary photographer Lon Hanagan—better known as Lon of New York—recalling one raid. “They looked at one picture and said, ‘A-ha! I see a pubic hair! You’re under arrest.'

"That gave them the right to destroy everything. 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 Lon, confiscated his cameras and equipment and destroyed a decade of work, hundreds of beautiful young men whose shining torsos and tastefully flaccid penises were deemed too vulgar to exist by the police, who are not known as connoisseurs of fine art. The police force is charged to serve and protect, but as was Lon's experience, it's sometimes unclear just whose interests they're serving. (Present tense because books and magazines are still routinely confiscated at the U.S./Canadian border, and the 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 functioned as loopholes in the law in that nothing overtly sexual was occurring in them, yet they were unmistakably homoerotic, sensual, even though Hanagan asserts that the vast majority of his subjects weren't even gay. His photography appealed to the aesthetic ideal of supermasculinity but mixed in the traditionally female characteristic of exhibitionism. They were pinups of the boys, for the boys and—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?

Physique photography has become popular again, as evidenced by the popularity of F. Valentine Hooven III's excellent book Beefcake: The Muscle Magazines of America 1950-1970 (Taschen). This time, the photographs are out in the open and 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 came, and now there is no way to mistake the historical and artistic importance of the photos he made decades ago, photos hidden under mattresses and obtained at great personal risk to the buyer.

Lon's 25-year career spanned from the late '30s to the early '60s, when he decided he'd had his fill of hassles over his work and focused instead on performing and teaching the piano. Now, at 84, he still takes in some pupils, and he remembers his former career in photography with pride.

For 30 years, Lon paid storage fees on some suitcases full of prints, negatives and magazines with his work on their covers, and this tiny cache today makes up all he has left of his work. Together with friend and pupil Jim Speciale and German book publisher Volker Janssen, he was able to pull together an impressive array of photos to represent his body of work, which has been published as a retrospective called Lon of New York.

Looking through the exquisitely produced book, one wonders about the models, the settings, the market, the photographer, and fortunately, Lon is here to fill us in.

Lon was born Alonzo James Hanagan on December 20, 1911, in Lexington, Massachusetts. Of the three children, Lon was the eldest and the most artistically inclined. His mother noticed him mimicking the pianists accompanying silent movies and saw to it that he started receiving piano and organ lessons by age eight, even though it was not in the family’s budget. By 16, he and his piano had their own weekly radio program and were regulars at church events. At age 17, Lon wasn’t thrilled to be uprooted when the family moved to Lockport, New York, even though it brought him closer to the city he would soon adopt as his lifelong home.

Around this time, Lon recalls becoming infatuated with bodybuilding star and aggressive entrepreneur Tony Sansone, just as today’s gay youth might secretly flip for Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise. Sansone ran a mail order business, selling photographs of his prizewinning 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 boldly inscribed all the photos, “To A.J. Hanagan, a devotee of the beautiful.”

“After a 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 come because 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 Lon moved to New York in 1936 at 25, he looked Sansone up and was welcomed into his entourage, often accompanying the muscleman to the beach—right alongside his wife and kids. This sort of friendliness carried over to the models Lon would eventually photograph—he remains friends with many of those who are still living, and with their wives.

The next important figure Lon encountered in the big city was Robert Gebhart, who worked under the more exotic name of Gebbé. Gebbé was a renowned physique photographer (and costume designer) who took Lon under his wing, teaching him the basics in lighting and composition. Lon had already been bitten by the photography bug after teaching art and music at a YMCA boys 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 the 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—Santo Leoni—and 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 before 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 were so beautiful that instead of Lon having to pay models, bodybuilders sought Lon 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 are distracting, imagine seeing Lon’s studio in the ‘40s, which featured lifesized prints of his work in all the windows. In fact, Calvin Klein’s ad campaigns owe much to the beefcake tradition. Whether it’s Marky Mark or Antonio Sabato, Jr., hustling Calvin’s jeans, they are invariably in skimpy clothes and fine form.

Lon’s first catalogue, 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, his models were modestly covered by fig leaves. What they had that Adam hadn’t was the touch of the legendary gay artist George Quaintance, a friend and neighbor of Lon’s, who would pop over and paint luminous leaves directly on Lon’s prints.

The atmosphere at a typical shoot would be far from idyllic, despite the relaxed, graceful poses he captured.

"Keep in mind, there was no 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.

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 and his selection of a wide variety of models. Lon deviated from e blond surfer boy or Italian stallion mold 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 it 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 recognized. 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 as white people.”

His selling techniques also included in-person runs to cities like Chicago, 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 Chicago with a suitcase brimful of pictures. A suitcase broke open and there were physique nudes all over the train station! Thank God it happened to be two or three in the morning. It was like a lot of money out there!"

During the ‘50s, after years of success, Lon moved into a luxurious West End apartment that had, ironically, once belonged to Mae West, another aficianado 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 background material, with its marble touches, ornate carved-wood paneling, stained glass and elegant architecture, settings that perfectly complimented 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 life 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 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 soirées” 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, 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.

But if the ‘50s were prosperous for Lon, they were also tumultuous as local citizen’s 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. He’d had enough, and this was when he parceled away what remained of his collection and returned to the music that had always been a close second as the love of his life.

After his retirement, the boundaries of permissibility gradually widened, and photographers were soon disposing of the posing straps and focusing on sexual arousal and even sex acts. Lon isn’t averse to pornography, but he never saw himself as a pornographer, so he wasn’t willing to go that route anyway.

“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.

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 Bruce of L.A., 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 competitor.

"I never felt competition. I'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 original archives have been depleted over the years (with the exception of AMG, which is still in business ___ years after founder Mizer's death), quite a few original physique photos are still in existence: So many men purchased prints from so many photographers that the sheer numbers ensured that despite homophobia, accidents, and time, a body of photos would survive somewhere. Now, they are available from specialty services and antiques dealers, fetching anywhere from $20 to several hundred dollars, depending on the condition and the pose.

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 has always been, "You can love a man, and you can still be a man."

Interestingly, he also photographed many drag queens in studio portraits so glamorous they look like they could have given Hedy Lamarr a run for her money. He laughs recalling how many swarmed his studio once they saw how beautiful he’d made their friends look. Lon was able to hold on to a number of those photos, and today they are priceless historical documents of drag life in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and are probably among the only high-quality photographs of real-life queens of the era.

One of them was notorious among Lon’s beach-going group. “There was this queen we used to call 'Fuckface Lola.’ Well, she was very bold. There’d be a lady on the beach with her little kids and Lola would 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 a lot of fun!

Of gay liberation, 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 people. 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 finally caught up with him.

(Lots of amazing Lonabilia is available at BigKugels.)

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