Legendary gay pornographer David Hurles dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Thursday April 13, 2023
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David Hurles, left, visited with the late Gore Vidal in this undated photo. Photo: Courtesy Bob Mizer Foundation
David Hurles, left, visited with the late Gore Vidal in this undated photo. Photo: Courtesy Bob Mizer Foundation

David Hurles, a gay pornographer whose models were plucked from the obscurity of the gritty streets of San Francisco and onto rolls of film shot for his defunct company Old Reliable, died April 12. He was 78.

Mr. Hurles died in a nursing home in Los Angeles, according to an obituary from the Bob Mizer Foundation. The cause of death was complications from a 2008 stroke. Dian Hanson, a longtime friend of Mr. Hurles' and manager of his estate, informed the San Francisco-based Mizer foundation that day, according to the obituary.

Mr. Hurles acted as the sole employee of Old Reliable, a pornographic media company that he founded in the 1970s in San Francisco. He had lived in the city for a time, beginning in the late 1960s, and called the Tenderloin home, stated Den Bell, founder, president, and CEO of the Mizer foundation. Prior to starting the company, Mr. Hurles photographed his first professional model in 1968.

As a photographer, Mr. Hurles focused his lens on the unsavory dregs of society — notably tattooed, shaggy-haired, and sneering drug addicts and convicts — a far cry from the cleaner-cut models who had appeared throughout the magazine and film loops until that time, the obituary stated.

"The Bob Mizer Foundation extends its condolences to Dian Hansen, to David Hurles' friends and family, and to his fans," stated Bell. "David's work for Old Reliable exposed gay audiences to a subculture in which we found excitement and thrills, an encounter with the type of man we have always been told to avoid. His pioneering work in the field has revolutionized the art of desire."

Bell told the Bay Area Reporter that Old Reliable was closed after Mr. Hurles' stroke. Hanson continues to manage Mr. Hurles' photo estate, Bell added.

Hanson, a longtime friend, stated that Mr. Hurles long knew the type he was attracted to.

"David realized early that he was sexually attracted to straight criminals, and all of his unique creative work, including photos, films, video and audiotapes, derived from this erotic obsession," she stated. "The power emanating from his photos reflects the power his subjects held over him."

Born in Ohio in the early 1940s, and after discovering photography as a teen, Mr. Hurles briefly attended the University of Cincinnati and served a short stint in the military; eventually, he moved to California to work as a photographer for Conrad and Lloyd, the obituary stated. Later, he would shoot for Ken Albert, one of the earliest pornographers in the industry. He would move to New York to shoot for Lynn Womack of Directory Services Inc. and later back to Los Angeles following the success of his images being published in many gay magazines, including Drummer, of which his good friend Jack Fritscher was editor.

Fritscher, who was the founding editor of Drummer, recalled his friend.

"Before a model in a scene accidentally kicked David in the head in Los Angeles in 1990 and ruined his focus, David shot thousands of photos and 300 feature videos documenting the culture of street hustlers while living in SOMA and Los Angeles," he wrote in a statement to the B.A.R. "When the scary models in his silent photos began to talk in his wild solo videos in 1981, he spread his income hiring more than 500 often unhoused drifters, ex-cons, and rentboys in his preferred casting order of straight, bi, and gay because in his Reality TV esthetic, they were authentic and could talk dominantly directly into the camera."

David Hurles' mugshot from his 1972 arrest. Photo: Courtesy Bib Mizer Foundation  

Like many of his contemporaries who dared to depict the male nude on film or on the printed page, Mr. Hurles was arrested more than once; in the introduction to his book "Outcast," he called the FBI file on him "a great work of legal fiction."

Hanson shared part of an interview she did with him for "The Big Penis Book."

"In '72 I got arrested for porno," Mr. Hurles told Hanson. "They hadn't gotten a search warrant, and I got bailed out the first day. In order to keep me in jail until they got their search warrant they charged me with counts of sodomy and oral copulation, as if I had performed them while I was in jail. In 1979 it was drug charges. The policemen found some pot and so forth when they intruded into my apartment, sent by a disgruntled model. I actually won that case. I certainly was not pleased to be locked up, but I did see lots of people that appealed to me when I was in jail. I made a few acquaintances to see later."

Hanson stated that she quickly became friends with Mr. Hurles.

"The man could tell a story better than anyone I ever met," she wrote in an email. "This is why we became instant friends when I sought him out to be in this book, and why, two years later, I agreed to take over power of attorney to care for him after his catastrophic stroke. They told me he'd be dead in six months. He lasted 14 years beyond that deadline."

Fritscher was a frequent collaborator with Mr. Hurles for 47 years documenting Old Reliable at drummerarchives.com.

"His photos of rough-trade hustlers from the Tenderloin scared national gay magazine editors until he broke through in San Francisco's 'Drummer' magazine where he found his audience in 1978," Fritscher wrote. "As a San Francisco arts pioneer living at 531 Howard Street, he was the first gay filmmaker to be arrested by the SFPD vice squad February 12, 1972, with the headline, 'Vice Squad's First Gay Film Bust.'"

Mizer and Womack also saw themselves caught up in the federal government's war against obscenity. According to the Mizer foundation website, Mizer, who died in 1992, saw his career catapulted into infamy in 1954 when he was convicted of the unlawful distribution of obscene material through the U.S. mail. The material in question was a series of black and white photographs, taken by Mizer, of young bodybuilders wearing what were known as posing straps — a precursor to the G-string.

Womack, who died in 1985, occupied a central position in 1960s gay publishing, including winning the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case Manual Enterprises v. Day, which confirmed that published materials directed toward gays and lesbians could not automatically be considered obscene, according to a website about him.

Mr. Hurles' obituary noted that like Mizer before him, he befriended his models, even though they often stole money and equipment from him. "Still, Hurles referred to many of them as his friends, including models who would go on to mainstream gay porn, including Peter O'Brien and Scott O'Hara." (O'Hara died in 1998.)

Mr. Hurles counted filmmaker John Waters and Mizer himself among his friends as well, influencing Mizer's work later in his career. Mr. Hurles was an early adopter of home video recording in the early 1980s, and he encouraged Mizer to film his models using that technology, which Mizer did in the last decade of his work with the Athletic Model Guild, the obituary noted.

Fritscher explained the name of Mr. Hurles' company: "He named his studio Old Reliable because it's street slang for a penis that always works."

But Hanson said, "David took it from an ad for The Old Reliable Stove Company. He thought it was funny."

In the introduction to "Outcast," Mr. Hurles reflected on his long career, writing, "I am very grateful to those men who shared their male essence with me, and to my patrons who studied my work, enjoyed it, and understood what it was saying."

An upcoming volume of the Mizer's Foundation's flagship publication, "Physique Pictorial," will focus on Mr. Hurles' life and legacy. A memorial announcement at the Bob Mizer Foundation is forthcoming.

Updated, 4/13/23: This article has been updated with comments from Jack Fritscher.

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