Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Dave's lettermen

Fine Arts

'Beefcake' exhibit at Stanford irks photographer Dave Martin

"Mike Sill, 1956," by Dave Martin, from Beefcake. Photo: Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University
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With nude male physique photography having gained mainstream acceptance, a small exhibit of 20 prints by San Francisco photographer Dave Martin at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center would seem to garner little controversy. But the photographer whose work is the subject of the exhibit wants nothing to do with it.

Beefcake: Physique Photography of Dave Martin, curated by Michele Kraus, examines the genre of physique photography that dominated 1950s homoerotic culture and inspired other artists. Martin is considered a pioneer in the genre, whose worked rivaled that of Bob Mizer and Bruce of LA. The exhibit, which opened Dec. 13, runs through March 2007.

Adding to the intrigue, many of the men Martin photographed in the 1950s, including those 20 prints shown in the exhibit, were Stanford University athletes competing in varsity sports at the time. Others were jocks from UC Berkeley and San Francisco State.

The idea for the exhibit began last year in a museum studies course taught by Wanda Corn, an esteemed scholar in American art. Students were asked to propose interesting exhibits relating to Stanford's archives or student life. Kraus, a 21-year-old student, discovered the archival holdings at Stanford, which include more than 24 boxes of prints donated by Martin.

"The more I researched, the more interesting it became," said Kraus. "The story behind how he photographed them, the covert nature, how often he ran into trouble with the police. It was so underground at the time."

Martin was briefly jailed for obscenity charges in the 50s, an event that seems to haunt him still. The reclusive photographer, now 84, granted a rare interview with the Bay Area Reporter .

"I don't like those people," said Martin of the Stanford archival staff. "The exhibition should be done after my death, as I asked, but they wouldn't listen to me."

Martin said that when he donated an estimated 2,000 prints, he had an agreement with Stanford's archival staff, but not a written contract. His stipulations excluded showing his work during his lifetime.

"I tried to tell them, but it's politics when you're dealing with such people." Martin said with a bit of anger that he would never see the exhibit, despite invitations to do so.

Kraus and the museum's head curator acknowledge Martin's irascible attitude toward displaying his work, but consider it worthy and appropriate nevertheless.

"As an art museum, we're focusing on the influence his work has had on others," said Patience Young, curator at Stanford's Cantor Art Center, who is overseeing the exhibit. "A lot of the posing is right out of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, an interesting intermingling of traditional subject and competition in a modern vehicle."

"I think the museum was looking to do something slightly controversial," said Kraus. "I was prepared for [Martin] to be excited, but he just doesn't seem like he's in the best spirits. He was pretty negative about the show."

The homoerotic aspect of the prints may not be as controversial as thought. The exhibit description focuses on "aestheticization of the male body through dramatic lighting, powerful poses, and masculine directness," but like its artist, deflects acknowledgement of a homoerotic aspect.

Kraus, however, is well aware of the gay aspect of Martin's work. Although straight, Kraus has long been a synchronized swimmer, and recently joined the LGBT-inclusive Tsunami Tsynchro Swim Team, whose ranks include several out gay male swimmers.

Martin remained "noncommittal" when asked if he himself is gay, and refuses to consider his work to be gay erotica.

"I don't like to pigeonhole anybody," he said. "I resent people putting that label on my work, 'gay.' It turns me off to hear that kind of term. They're just bodies.

"I photographed straight men. I found them just as easy to work with. I never cared for gay people as models. I think gays come across as being gay. I don't have anything against that. I just wanted a mascu

"Sandy Alcorn, 1955," by Dave Martin, from Beefcake. Photo: Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University.
line image."

Asked if he could acknowledge at least a gay viewership of his work, Martin remained stubborn. "I don't know who's interested. If you want to put that kind of label on it, go ahead."

Martin is, however, content with a recent book of his work, Dave Martin (American Photography of the Male Nude 1940-1970, Vol. 3), published by Jannsen Press in 2001.

"The book was done with my approval," he said. "I worked with the publisher on it. So that was pretty much the way I wanted it." One exception is the list of subjects' names, omitted from the book, which Martin has kept. An online list of many of Martin's models is available as well.

Photographer Dave Martin in the late 1960s.

Virgin territory

In Philadelphia in the late 1940s, Martin befriended Alonzo Hanagan, known later as Lon of New York, another renowned physique photographer.

"I remember sitting in Lon's kitchen. I said, 'I'm going to move to San Francisco.' I came here in 1948. It was virgin territory. I was the first to open a studio in 1951, on Sacramento Street. I had to do other work as a backup. Most commercial photographers have to have a second job as a backup."

Despite being the first West Coast nude male physique photographer, Martin refuses to acknowledge his legacy. "I don't need all this ego gratification," he said. "I've never had ego with respect to my own work. All this is in the past. My work came to a screeching halt in 1974."

Martin remained vague about why he quit photography, saying, "You just can't go on doing the same thing. It was very difficult work. People think it was all apple pie," referring to the innocuous portrayals depicted in part of Thom Fitzgerald's 1998 film Beefcake . Martin is one of few living physique photographers interviewed in the part-documentary/part-dramatized film.

Martin said the athletes posed simply for money. "The work was listed as a commercial job under employment," he said. "They responded to job postings. In the early 50s, it was $5 an hour, a considerable sum. You have to adjust your thinking; we look back and say that's not enough by today's standards. Today, you'd be lucky to get a model for less than $200 an hour."

But Martin does admit that getting star athletes to pose nude did involve some convincing on occasion. "You can either do the work or you couldn't. Too many people couldn't. You have to have the ability to talk to people and explain what you want, to get some kind of communication going. That is an art."

Asked if he sees contemporary comparisons with his pivotal work, Martin said he's not interested in newer photography. "I haven't been to a museum in years. I'm retired, taking it easy. I think I deserve it."

Martin's concerns about his work's legacy appear dour. "I have a big problem about making a decision about the negatives," he said. "I'll probably destroy them. If they fall into the hands of others, with people charging hundreds of dollars for my pictures, I need to prevent that."

Martin said the prints donated to Stanford were prepared for archival quality, and should suffice. "They'll be around longer than you or I."

Beefcake: Physique Photography of Dave Martin runs through March 4, 2007 at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way. A reception for LGBT Stanford alumni takes place Dec. 14, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Info: (650) 723-4177.

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