Physique Pictorial

The rise, fall, and revival of Lon of New York

Lon of New York, the physique photographer who turned muscle men into gleaming icons in the '40s and '50s, is, at 87, preparing for the first gallery show of his lifetime as best he can. (It continues at Wessel + O'Connor, 242 West 26th Street, through March 28.) Nearly immobilized by a circulatory problem, he's in his West 72nd Street apartment, enthroned on a blue plush recliner, receiving visitors and congratulatory phone calls. A solid, broad-chested man with a big head and wisps of white hair, he's dressed in a checked shirt and pale blue shorts under a blue cotton robe, and his legs are wrapped in bandages from the knees to the ankles. The room around him is crammed with more furniture than it can comfortably hold, including a small pipe organ and an upright piano, on both of which Alonzo James Hanagan, who began his career at 16 as a church and concert organist, still gives the occasional lesson. In deference to his students, there's no evidence of Lon's photographic career, but the room's longest wall remains as blank, if not as white, as it was in the days when it served as a backdrop for handsome young men in nothing but baby oil.

"I'd say, 'Now Sal, or Raul, or whoever, you're up there for one reason,' " Lon remembers, his voice as scratchy as an old record. "'You're there because you're an object of beauty. And you're supposed to think, I must be beautiful or I wouldn't be standing here. Keep that in your mind and it'll come through in the pictures."' And, more often than not, it did. Though many of Lon's models in the later '50s and '60s weren't the competition bodybuilders he began his career with, he always managed to turn the working-class Italian, Puerto Rican, and black men before his camera into embodiments, however imperfect, of the Greek ideal. Even if some of these lugs look out of their element perched on a fluted column in a posing strap, their vulnerability is as touching as Lon's aspirations. For all their glamorous stylization and formalist chill, Lon's best photos have the warmth of portraits and a feeling for the soul under all that sculpted flesh. They're about yearning and desire.

Before settling into an interview, Lon takes a call from a former model, now 75 and living in Florida. Reed Massengill, a photographer and physique photo maven who was instrumental in organizing Lon's exhibition, has been searching for Lon's old models on the Internet, and one by one, they've been checking in. (Massengill, who visits Lon every Sunday, also sat in on the interview to fill in gaps in his friend's increasingly vague memories.) Lon, conscious of his guests, keeps the phone conversation brief but pungent, telling his caller that John Grimek, the big-time bodybuilder whose Strength & Health cover photos jump-started Lon's career in the early '40s, died recently from choking on a chicken bone. Another colleague— Lon calls him "Miss"— has also passed away. "You frustrated that poor queen," Lon chides, laughing huskily. Afterward, he's lost for a moment in a reverie of remembrance. "I'm not used to all this good news," he tells us. Then, softly and almost to himself, he says, "I'm silly, I know."

Raul Pacheco, perhaps the most photographed of Lon's models, perched on one of his signature columns, circa 1950
Courtesy Wessel + O'Connor Gallery
Raul Pacheco, perhaps the most photographed of Lon's models, perched on one of his signature columns, circa 1950

Hardly. Lon was among the small group of pioneering photographers responsible for what the historian of homoerotica, Thomas Waugh, calls "one of the greatest achievements of gay culture": the proliferation, inventiveness, and mainstream impact of physique imagery that followed World War II. Though photographers like Edwin Townsend, Earle Forbes, and Robert Gebhart had been making pictures of nude or nearly nude muscle men for bodybuilder magazines in the '30s and early '40s, the generation that followed saw the male physique with more unabashedly interested eyes. Townsend's widely circulated photos of Tony Sansone made such a big impression on the teenage Lon that he looked the sleek bodybuilder up when he got to New York in 1936, and hung out with him at Coney Island. But it was Gebhart (who signed his photos "Gebbé") who became Lon's artistic mentor and friend, teaching him about lighting and the classic repertoire of masculine poses.

Since Lon always carried his camera when he went to Coney Island and its bathhouses, he was ready when he saw a young man "with a rather impressive build on him," and took a few quick snaps on the beach. When one of the shots won first prize in the British muscle magazine Superman's monthly contest, his photo career took off. From the beginning, the physique biz was a cottage industry, full of entrepreneurs who set up makeshift studios and mail-order operations in their homes. Lon's first studio was in a furnished room, but he was already in larger quarters on Second Avenue and 54th Street when he made his Grimek covers for Strength & Health, and he flourished there. He didn't even have to pay models; they came to him to be photographed in the heroic style, their bodies shining like burnished bronze under the studio lights. He played Sibelius and Stravinsky to set the mood. "I used to call it photographic sculpture, like the Greeks," he says. "Instead of in marble, I sculpted with the camera."

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