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.”
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.”
Though many of his subjects were entirely nude, Lon was interested in beauty, not porn. “I was offered all kinds of money to do pornography,” he points out, “and I refused every time. I could have become quite well-off. But I loved my photography, and I didn’t want to ever be accused of prostituting it.” He sold prints of his nudes to private collectors, but was careful to cover up the genitals (sometimes with a hand-applied fig leaf or a bit of ink that knowledgeable customers could remove with spit) for public viewing or publication. But as Lon and the slew of photographers who followed made the transition from the rigorously heterosexual precincts of the muscle mags into the more casually eroticized (though never avowedly gay) pages of the mass-market physique publications of the ’50s, they began to run into trouble.
Lon is confused about the chronology of his career, but memories of his run-ins with the law are painfully vivid. The first time, he was set up by two visitors claiming to be from an art colony who asked him to send them nude photos through the mail, which was against the law. The post office sting was the most common form of entrapment at the time, and when the “art colonists” returned to his studio a few days later, they brought the police, who arrested him and confiscated his photos. Apparently, although he can supply few details, the case was dismissed and Lon cautiously resumed his work. More than a decade later, in the early ’60s, Lon was busted in an Upper West Side apartment (former tenant: Mae West) whose carved friezes, stained-glass windows, and voluminous curtains became his most distinctive backdrops. “They really were brutal the second time,” Lon says, his voice rising in fresh alarm. “They went through everything, threw things on the floor, trampled on pictures and negatives, calling me a faggot and saying, ‘You creature, you! You’re destroying our young people!’ ”
Though Lon insists he always covered up his models’ genitals after his first arrest, the police didn’t need a naked, much less erect, penis— only a hint of pubic hair, the very definition of obscenity in this hysterical climate. They ransacked his place until one cop found one picture with, as Lon puts it, “a single pubic hair.” “That was all they needed— an excuse to torment me. They seized everything; they took cameras, lighting equipment, photos, negatives, everything that I had.” He was led out in handcuffs, jailed overnight, and fined heavily. Nothing that was seized in either raid was ever returned. All that remained of decades of work was what he’d managed to save in a trunk in storage. (The material in the Wessel + O’Connor show comes primarily from collectors who bought the work from early physique-photo enthusiasts.)
Lon wasn’t the only physique photographer jailed or fined during the late ’50s and early ’60s. Until one publisher of physique magazines sued the post office over the seizure of his goods and won his case in the Supreme Court in 1962, everyone in the business was fair game. Lon continued to photograph into the early ’70s, but his reverent, mannered style looked quaint next to the sexier, more provocative physique images that the new freedom allowed. Today, they look like relics of a more innocent, more conflicted time, and Lon’s delighted to be around for their revival. Nearly all of his old colleagues are gone, but he prefers wit to nostalgia. As his visitors leave, he calls out, “Watch out for the pubic hair!”