You’ve got male: clandestine photos of men’s bodies – in pictures

Man up … John S Barrington Catalogue sheet 2 1970s, Photograph: Rupert Smith Collection


These images of bodybuilders and men in skimpy briefs were taken at a time when making and distributing homoerotic images was a criminal offence in Britain

Photograph: Rupert Smith collection

A new exhibition celebrates a clandestine visual culture of men’s bodies that emerged in the postwar period, when it was illegal to make or distribute such images. Dulak was a dancer, found by physique photographer John S Barrington in 1938 on Charing Cross Road. Barrington introduced him to theatre photographer Angus McBean; this study featured on the cover of Richard Buckle’s progressive dance journal, Ballet. A Hard Man Is Good to Find! is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 11 June 2023

Photograph: Stephen Cartwright collection

Bill Green set up Vince Studio at 46 Manchester Street, Marylebone in 1946, specialising in photographs of bodybuilders. Prints could be ordered from catalogue sheets advertised in the classifieds of Health and Strength magazine. His catalogue sheets always had a gutter in the middle so they could be folded for discreet posting without creasing any image

Photograph: John McKay collection

In 1951, Green was advertising posing briefs in the Daily Mirror. They were made by shortening and over-dyeing Marks & Spencer underwear. This advertisement was shot at the Serpentine Lido. In 1954, Green opened the first men’s fashion boutique, Vince Man’s Shop, on Fouberts Place, Soho; it was the start of the peacock revolution and Carnaby Street as a fashionable retail destination

Photograph: Rupert Smith Collection

Basil Clavering ran the Cameo Royal cinema on the Charing Cross Road, and the Cameo Poly (now Regent Street Cinema). He built a studio in the basement of his home on Denbigh Street, Pimlico, with his friend, John Charles Pankhurst, both of whom had served in the navy

Photograph: Rupert Smith collection

In their studio Basil & John recruited military men to model in authentic uniforms, and Clavering innovated the ‘storyette’ where the catalogue sheet of photos available to order would set out a narrative drama like film stills from a motion picture

Photograph: Rupert Smith Collection

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 that suggested homosexuality remained subject to the 1857 Obscene Publications Act

Photograph: Alistair O’Neill collection

Vince Man’s Shop was the first boutique to sell imported men’s fashion such as American workwear jeans and Italian suiting and shirting. It catered to homosexual men and benefited from its proximity to the Marshall Street gym, Soho’s coffee bars and Piccadilly Circus. The cover model here is aspiring actor Sean Connery, better known at the time as a bodybuilder and artist’s model

Photograph: The School of Art Museum and Galleries,University of Aberystwyth

Highgate men’s pond has a history of accommodating physical culturists and queer men as swimmers and sunbathers. At the age of 21, artist Keith Vaughan purchased a Leica camera and set up a darkroom in his bedroom. One of his first projects was a photobook he designed and made charting the climbing temperature of a summer’s day at the pond. This is the first time the album has been exhibited

Photograph: Guy Burch collection

Anthony C Burls was a photographer who engaged young men to model through street casting. He also ran a coffee shop at World’s End in Chelsea in the 1960s, took casual work at Battersea Funfair and regularly attended a gym in Brixton. He used these contexts to find working-class men to photograph

Photograph: Rupert Smith collection

In another study of Dulak taken in Angus McBean’s Covent Garden studio, an idealised diptych of the naked dancer is created from controlled lighting and double exposure. It was taken after McBean was released from prison, having served two years’ hard labour for gross indecency. During the Blitz, McBean relocated his studio to Bath and it was raided by police in 1941

Photograph: Emmanuel Cooper Archive Bishopsgate Institute

Emmanuel Cooper purchased a set of negatives from Portobello Antiques Market in the early 1980s. Cooper was a ceramicist, writer, art critic and gay rights activist. He called this anonymous body of work The Portobello Boys, as he believed they were taken in the north Kensington area in the late 1950s to mid-60s. Taken in an era before gay liberation, they document young men posing, in turns uncertainly and assertively, in states of undress


The article was primarily published in The Guardian.


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