“History of Bruce: Stephen Cohen Gallery, Los Angeles,” ... might be good, issue #185, 2012
You are impacted by Bruce of L.A.’s work and you might not even know it. You can see his influence in magazines like Men’s Health; you are surrounded by his aesthetic progeny at Abercrombie & Fitch; and you sense his taste in commercials for everything from Old Spice to Cool Water Cologne. If you look closely, his stylized images of male “perfection” echo in photographs of muscled celebs today; from Chris Evans to Zac Efron , in TV shows like True Blood, and movies like 300. Photographers like Bruce of L.A. helped shape paradigms of desirable manliness, and thankfully we have exhibitions like Stephen Cohen’s The Extraordinary Life & Times of Bruce of L.A., 1948-1974 to help us unearth and understand some of the events, people and conflicting imagery that circulate around these ideals.
Bruce of L.A. is the artistic moniker of Bruce Bellas, a Nebraskan chemistry teacher who in 1947, at the age of thirty-eight, moved to Los Angeles to photograph bodybuilders competing on the sands of the then newly-christened Muscle Beach in Venice, CA. Bellas’ photos capture the birth of American bodybuilding culture, when this sort of masculine ideal first griped the popular imagination with characters like Charles Atlas—encouraging young men to pump iron and bulk up. Bellas soon set up his own studio photographing these muscular young men and eventually launched Male Figure in 1956, one of many pioneering physique magazines of its time. The impact of magazines like Male Figure is immeasurable. Thousands of men who subscribed to these publications saw their own sexual desires, for the first time, reflected in print. Born in an age long before the internet, these were not just jerk off materials, but conduits for a sense of belonging, both sexually and socially; a reminder that one was not alone. And of course we need only look to the work of more recent photographers like Bruce Weber, Herb Ritz, Robert Mapplethorpe and David LaChapelle, to see just how lasting Bellas’ impact has truly been.
If you’re familiar with the Beefcake aesthetic characterized by Bellas’ work, as well as photos by his more famous colleague Bob Mizer, the ubiquitous whiteness and overt masculinity of the models in this genre comes as no surprise. Most of the exhibition is populated by these familiar Anglo “types,” like a photo of the model Vern Bickel from 1960, with a tanned young man posed in subtle contrapposto holding a sword, his body lit with dramatic lighting so as to highlight every muscle. However, one of the strengths of this exhibition is that it broadens our understanding of Bellas’ oeuvre by including images of people of color, older drag queens and effeminate boys. Perhaps this diversity of images is due to the fact that the work on display comes from the collection of L.A. painter John Sonsini, who himself has made a career out of lovingly depicting Latino day laborers in heavy impasto portraits.
In one particularly unexpected image from Bellas’ Marti Gras Series, an older man poses in drag while holding a champagne glass, his earrings and necklace sparkling and his hairy chest peeking through an arabesque-embellished silk top. His slightly overweight frame, delicate gesture and feminine accoutrements stand in direct contrast to the burly masses surrounding the gallery, yet his pose is unabashedly confident. Such an image injects a decidedly queer tone into this otherwise “butch” exhibition.
The gallery has also filled large vitrines with stacks of photos, documents and magazines from Bellas’ archive. These displays also hold the occasional posing strap, a whisper of fabric used to cover a model’s genitals to avoid breaking mid-century censorship laws. Brief slivers of didactic text are interspersed amongst these ephemera, and while they do provide notable context to Bellas’ story, I wish they encompassed a more thorough discussion of why this work is so important, including a richer analysis of the turbulent times framing these images. Nevertheless, the overwhelming number of photos scattered about in these cases testifies to Bellas’ prolific career and to the need for a more comprehensive exhibition of his work, and other work by pioneering artists like him, in a larger venue in the future.