The men of the 50's, naked and in-depth.
Edited by David L. Chapman and Thomas Waugh
Arsenal Pulp Press 208 pages (illustrated), $27.95
THIS NEW BOOK of photographs is remarkable in a number of ways. First, Comin' At Ya!'s nude and in some cases explicitly erotic photos of men alone and in pairs were taken in the 1950's, at a time when publishing pictures far less suggestive than these could get you thrown in jail. Second, compared to the highly posed and stylized "physique" photographs of this era (and going back to the early 20th century), Denny Denfield's models are not only au naturel but taken in natural settings with a minimum of staging. Finally, they were all taken using a special double-lens camera that allowed the images to be viewed in three dimensions.
The first surprise is accounted for by the fact that Denfield (1918-1992) never published any of his photos but instead kept them in a private collection that he showed only to a select few friends, visitors, and models. The second phenomenon is partly explained by the first: the familiar "Greek athlete" or "muscle-man" poses--along with the genital-concealing thong--were a gesture to the authorities by way of disguising such photos as "art"; Denfield's strict code of secrecy freed him from this compromise. Thus not only are the men fully nude but in some cases sporting erections, and there's even the occasional scene featuring two men engaging in fellatio or anal sex. (Or at least this is true of Denfield's earlier photos; curiously, by the late 50's he had largely reverted to the stylized "physique" modality, conducting his shoots indoors and reinstating the thong.)
The fact that Denfield chose to do it all in 3-D--as if the novelty and risk of the undertaking weren't enough--was a choice that he made early on and was an important element in his initial attraction to photography as a hobby (and it was always just that, never a money-making proposition). The fact that 3-D movies and stills were all the rage in the era after World War II was undoubtedly a factor, but there were still technical difficulties to be overcome, and few photographers mastered the technique as Denfield did. (For example, for technical reasons each of the two images had to be a perfect square, a major restriction on freedom of composition.) For this reason, 3-D photographs of the quality and clarity of Denfield's from this era are quite rare.
All this is explained in two highly literate introductions to Comin' At Ya! by co-editors David L. Chapman and Thomas Waugh, who discuss both the technology of 3-D photography and Denfield's masterful use of it to capture thousands of images of nude men from 1950 to 1965. The story of how and where Denfield found and photographed his models--and how he kept this rather ambitious project under wraps--is a fascinating one, filled with booze and barely legal boys, much of it taking place on the beaches just south of San Francisco. The story of how this vast collection finally came to light and how part of it found its way into this book is equally engrossing.
The book comes with a pair of plastic glasses that produce the 3-D effect and magnify the image as well. One of the editors confesses that he belongs to the ten percent of the population that apparently cannot see photographs in three dimensions. This reviewer had no such difficulty and can report that the effect really does add a new dimension to an impressive group of full-color photographs, proficiently composed and processed, revealing a world of young men in their prime.
That fifty years later the subjects still have the power to get the hormones flowing attests, perhaps, to the universality of male beauty and desire over time and place. But they also reveal a world so different from our own in style: that paradoxically straightlaced but voluptuous world of America in the 50's. The wholesome smiles, the Brylcreem haircuts, the Coppertone tans (on uniformly white men) are all there, but this was also a time long before the age of shaved chests and manicured pubes, body piercings and sprawling tattoos, a time when naked men were somehow--more naked.