This is the last week of A Hard Man is Good to Find! at the Photographer's Gallery in Ramillies St, London. It's a bold new exhibition charting over 60 years of queer photography of the male physique and there's some stunning photographs.

John S Barrington, John Hamill, circa 1966
Courtesy Rupert Smith Collection

The exhibition centres on queer photographs of men's bodies, produced in London in the twentieth century and includes more than 100 items.

While the 1955 Wolfenden Report and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act marked the partial decriminalisation of gay sexual activity, prompting gay liberation and the fight for social equality; any depiction of male nudity which suggested homosexuality remained subject to the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, which made making or distributing such images a criminal offence.

Basil Clavering, (Royale)
Storyette EX FJSS print, 1950s
Courtesy Rupert Smith Collection
A clandestine visual culture emerged, regulated by laws which enforced homosexuality as invisible. In turn, it directly fed the defiant, overt visuality of gay men's bodies that emerged in the post-war period.

The tension between invisibility and visibility was negotiated through ideas about the male body drawn from art, physical culturists, and pornography - both home-grown and imported.

This exhibition highlights key areas of London which were a focus for men seeking out men to photograph. It maps out a territory of risk and possibility across Highgate, between Chelsea and Wellington Barracks, in Soho, Brixton, Portobello and Euston. Within each site it is possible to locate artists of all persuasions, creating work about queer sensibilities and men's bodies in radical ways.
Catalogues, print ordering sheets, personal albums, magazines and publications are also included in the exhibition to explore how these photographs were circulated, exchanged and shared.

A Hard Man is Good to Find! brings together photographs produced for commercial purposes, as well as those images that were primarily creative or just taken for entirely personal reasons.

Basil Clavering, (Royale, Hussar, Dolphin), Mail order
Storyette print, late 1950s
Courtesy Rupert Smith Collection
OutUK has previously published features on the classic and archive photography of men's bodies distributed to cities all around the UK, but this kind of imagemaking from the 1930's to the 1990's was most often seen in London. It's this sort of work from photographers that's the focus of the new exhibition curated by Alistair O'Neill. He's professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins and he's centered this display on the geography of the clandestine gay culture which emerged in the capital just after the Second World War.

Anonymous, The Portobello Boys, early 1960s
Courtesy The Bishopsgate Institute
Special Collections and Archives

Martin Spenceley, 1980s.
Courtesy of the Michael Carnes Collection

Covering more than six different decades, many works are exhibited here for the first-time including Keith Vaughan's Highgate Men's Pond album, a modernist photo collage made in 1933; "The Portobello Boys", an anonymous and striking portfolio of young men taken in the late 1950s and early 1960s in North Kensington. A set of archetypes, "The Londoners", documented in the late 1960s by Anthony C Burls (trading as Cain of London) and Martin Spenceley's street portraits of subcultural men photographed in Euston during the 1980s.

Keith Vaughan, Highgate Men's Pond Album, 1933
Courtesy Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries

The hinge of this history is the posing pouch, a modest fabric covering for the male genitals developed by gay physique photographers to show as much of the male body as possible. Its origins lie in the US, in the Athletic Model Guild established by Bob Mizer in 1945, although there is evidence of it being worn for sunbathing in London in the early 1930s.

William Domenique (Lon of London)
Model Spencer Churchill print. Bill Ward adjusted print
1955 (c) Estate of William Domenique
('Lon of London')/ Burch Collection
An original 1950s posing pouch will be on display in the exhibition. Employed to circumvent the ban on full nudity (which included the postal system), the pouch was also painted on mail order reproductions so that customers could rub them off once received in the post.

It is very much the sighting and dematerialising of the posing pouch is key to thinking through how such images were consumed, and how queer erotics were discursively constructed from imaginative forms of resistance to power and oppression.

It's the last few days of A Hard Man is Good to Find! as it closes on Sunday 11 June 2023 at the Photographer's Gallery - 16-18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW. The gallery is open from 10am.


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