I was a privileged kid in a family bedeviled with ghosts. My grandfather, Alexander Barr Comstock, was a federal judge appointed by FDR; his brother Daniel Frost Comstock invented Technicolor. My grandmother was the daughter of American philosopher John Dewey. The noisiest spook was Anthony Comstock, Founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873, an institution dedicated to enforcing Victorian morality upon America. George Bernard Shaw coined the term “Comstockery” after Comstock alerted the New York City police to the content of Shaw’s play Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Shaw remarked that “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States.”
I was born in 1951, and the bar was set very high for what could be considered personal success. I attended the St. Edmund’s Academy in Pittsburgh, and then the North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka. By the time I reached my Junior year in high school, I had become a full-blown alcoholic, and sent away to a nuthouse. I was subsequently expelled from North Shore for hooliganism, and spent 12th grade at New Trier High School thinking I was Angela Davis with my faux Afro.
In 1970, I had a Teresa of Avila moment that irrevocably changed the direction of my life. I was still living at home with my parents, and during a week of binge drinking, I began experiencing verbal communications from Shakespeare as well as visions of Richard Burbage. I spent several years of followup in the library at Northwestern University studying Elizabethan texts, and in the mid-‘70s moved to New York City where I found a suitable home for my scholarship at Potter’s Field–not the potter’s field on Hart Island, but Michael Moriarty‘s busking Shakespeare company for scorned actors. Michael’s madness fueled my own, and my endeavors to right the plays of Shakespeare had become as loopy as Don Quixote’s quest to revive chivalry. I would go completely berserk at any mention of “King Lear,” and after physically assaulting a guest at a Christmas Party for objecting to one of my textual emendations, I was taken to my first AA Meeting.
I stopped drinking in 1979, and picked up gender studies at Tisch School of the Arts in their film and television program. My friend Sebastian Stuart introduced me to Linda Simpson, who had recently begun hosting a clubnight at The Pyramid Club called Channel 69. The evening’s entertainment included gay burlesque shows by the top drag performers Downtown. Public Access television was in its glory days, and together with my best friend Karel van Aggelen, we cobbled together a weekly thirty-minute television series on Manhattan Cable TV documenting the performances. The series ran from 1990 to 1992.
About the time Channel 69 was closing its doors, I was introduced to the late Arlene Raven, the great feminist art historian, who encouraged me to produce a lesbian dance and arts festival at The Pyramid Club, called Turn Out. The intent was to broadcast it on Manhattan CableTV as a weekly series as I had been doing with Channel 69. I thought it would be interesting to see how high art might be understood and assessed when relocated from a plush cultural establishment like Lincoln Center, to a dilapidated pick-up bar on Avenue A. The poet Sapphire, Lisa Kron, The Pat Granney Dance Company, Casselberry-DuPree, The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet, Stephanie Skura, Jennifer Monson, Jennifer Miller, Nancy Fried and Christina Schlesinger were among the headliners. NY Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning selected Turn Out as one of the “Year’s Best” dance events in 1992.
My interest in bodybuilding was piqued when I saw Steve Reeves in the Ed Wood film Jail Bait on the Early Show. I implored my parents to take me to see Hercules when it opened at the State-Lake Theater in the Loop but to no avail. Happily, it was released on television not long after, and followed by a slew of lurid gladiator movies memorialized by Captain Oveur in Airplane! These films were mass-produced in Italy from 1958 to 1965, just as color television sets were being marketed across the United States, and I was hitting puberty. They featured Aryan musclemen imported from the lab of Dr. Frank N. Furter; what the women lacked in muscles, they made up for in makeup. The films supplied America’s growing demand for color movies to watch on their dazzling new televisions, and its insatiable hunger for prurience. In a personal correspondence with a former associate Jay Blotcher, Gore Vidal comments on the phenomenon:
[T] he male body as an object of beauty and desire for both sexes was very late coming in a sad Jesus Christ-besotted peasant nation like the US. The first manifestation in a mainline movie was It Happened One Night when Clark Gable took off his shirt to reveal no undershirt. Sales of undershirts plummet . . . But no one quite understood what was happening. Beauty and desirability were the province of the female. A man could be handsome but hardly erotic–he was judged by his suit, Borsalino hat, the twinkle in his eye. Then came Tennessee Williams with quite other notions of what the male meant. When Brando appeared in 1947 on stage in a torn sweaty t-shirt the male as erotic object exploded into the slow American consciousness. … Incidentally, from the beginning, the female was celebrated by the likes of C.B. DeMille who may have set the style for the later exhibition of the male which he himself did not exhibit, his males’ bodies looked like refugees from a Turkish bath for alcoholics. In my time in Hollywood’s 50s, male beauty deeply disturbed directors and producers–competition “terror.”
In 1999, I produced Sons of Hercules, a video lecture presentation given by MGM preservationist John Kirk. (John is well-known in the motion picture industry for restoring censored material from films like Kiss Me Deadly, Fellini Satyricon, Tom Jones, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Trial of Oscar Wilde, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Heaven’s Gate, Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid, and Bergman’s Persona. Other titles he preserved were Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sweet Smell of Success, Vera Cruz, Babette’s Feast, and Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle.) It was film history by Brüno. Using lurid scenes from upwards of 70 films, and interviews with Richard Harrison, Gordon Mitchell, and Mickey Hargitay, the program looked specifically at the genre’s camp and homoerotic elements. Mickey attended its premier at the 1999 New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and graciously consented to take questions from the audience. Michael Musto was there, and wrote about Mickey’s rare guest appearance in the Village Voice:
“The guest of honor was former Mr. Universe and Mr. Jayne Mansfield who was utterly delightful, especially when an audience member asked whether he had ever slept with his early employer Mae West. “I’m gonna let Ken Starr handle that” Hargitay responded. Alas, some self-appointed prosecutor in the crowd then insisted on bringing up Mansfield’s car wreck, and the muscle man started crying, a massive temple dissolving before our very eyes. Even more shocking, it was I who dragged things back on track, asking about the not quite as tragic 1980 TV movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Loni Anderson as Mickey and Jayne–the most mammary-laden classic since Victor Mature out-titted Hedy Lamarr. “I wanted 260 changes in the script” revealed Hargitay, “but my agent said “Just take the money and run.”[La Dulce Musto]
I moved to Venice, California in 2000 intending to develop Sons of Hercules into a feature documentary. It was there that I was introduced to the world of competitive bodybuilding through Joe Gold, who took me to my first contest in Redondo Beach. I watched in amazement as he shouted insults at the competitors from his wheelchair. “You look like a big ape, Cormier.” I sat there thinking that the contest was a mutant macho-version of something you’d see at The Boy Bar. They were drag shows turned topsy-turvy.
I decided to put Sons of Hercules on a back burner. It seemed to me that the broader appeal of the films, and why they came into being in the first place, had less to do with homoeroticism than body politics and gender theater. The archetypes and motifs represented in sword and sandal movies were distilled to their essence at bodybuilding exhibitions and drag shows. These archetypal images are what made Steve Reeves the highest paid actor in Europe, Arnold Schwarzenegger the highest paid actor in Hollywood, and Rupaul a superstar.
Mickey Hargitay and I became close friends after our meeting in New York in 1999, and with Gordon’s help, we founded the company Graphic Muscle in 2001. We teamed up with Gene Mozee, Russ Warner, Jimmy Caruso, Wayne Gallasch and The Steve Reeves International Society in the hope of better protecting the electronic copyrights to their properties, which was being pirated all over the Internet. Until that time, I had never taken still photos, and only by necessity began shooting NPC contests locally in Southern California in order to keep the site updated with current material. Ironically, I was employed as a staff photographer with Ironman Magazine, one hundred years after my relation Anthony Comstock took bodybuilding magazine publisher Bernarr Macfadden to court on obscenity charges.
On October 5, 1905, Anthony Comstock of the Society for the Suppression of Vice accompanied the officers of the New York Police Department as they raided the offices of The Physical Culture Publishing Company and arrested its founder and owner, Bernarr Macfadden. The charge was the spreading of pornography and at issue were the posters for a “Mammoth Physical Culture Exhibition” to be held at Madison Square Garden-posters which showed the winners of the physique competitions held as part of the previous year’s extravaganza. There were apparently two posters which Comstock found objectionable; the first, as the New York Times reports, showed “the women prize winners, ten or twelve young women in white union suits with sashes around their waists . . . ” while the second featured the men’s winner, “wearing a pair of sandals and a leopard’s skin as a breechcloth.“
I first began shooting bodybuilders when I moved to California in 2000. I assumed that they were experienced models and performers like Eugene Sandow and Tony Sansone but this was not the case. Cameraman Chris Lund famously described working with them to his first job as mortuary photographer taking pictures of corpses. For myself, I came to prefer shooting bodybuilders in the gym because they were forced outside of themselves by the exercises they were doing, much like “activities” given to self-conscious acting students. I approach my gym shoots like a cultural anthropologist, as a participant observer. I rarely shoot on assignment and the results don’t matter. I do not use lighting setups because I don’t want to “set up” my shots. My goal is not to show exercise techniques or muscle porn but to depict the bodybuilding sub-culture as it really exists.
Oscar Wilde said “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself.” My portrait photography is a personal affair. None of it was commissioned. I did not charge for the photo sessions, nor was I charged. There was never a thought that these pictures were going to be published in magazines.
I cannot say why the guys wanted their pictures taken. I sensed that they were deeply ambivalent about the homosexual ambience surrounding our photo shoots, and their expressions more often than not are aloof and disdainful, as in the portraits by Bronzino. For my part, I photograph people “that strike [my] heart and set it blooming like a flower,” as Donna Tartt writes in The Goldfinch; “images that open up some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find.” My pictures explore Platonic imperfection, and longing. It is strongly influenced by Camp. As the late Charles Ludlam said of his work, it “has to do with humor and unhinging the pretensions of serious art. It comes out of the dichotomy between academic and expressive art, …and takes what is considered worthless and transforms it into high art.”