In Los Angeles in 1945, photographer Bob Mizer founded the Athletic Model Guild, a sort of home for wayward and hunky boys who didn’t mind having their unclothed photos taken in the company of other men. Physique Pictorial, a small, half-sheet-sized black and white zine, was the house publication and sales tool, and it created a wide audience for both Mizer’s photographs as well as the drawings of Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen. Mizer assigned Laaksonen the easier-to-pronounce pseudonym Tom of Finland, and under that name, Laaksonen’s drawings became some of the most iconic images of gay erotic art.
MOCA Pacific Design Center is running a show of images from Physique Pictorial as well as images from Mizer’s and Tom of Finland’s private collection, through January 26. L.A. Weekly sent a team of three very different observers — a gay man, a straight man and a straight woman (this writer and two of her male friends) — to have a look at the show, and share their perspective on four of Tom of Finland’s images.
SW: Yeah. It just looks grotesque to me. How is it striking you?
GG: If this was real life, I’d be so happy.
SG: It doesn’t strike me as grotesque, but it strikes me as alien — I can’t identify with it being arousing. If I put a woman there, it would be.
GG: It’s so exaggerated, it’s unreal, the size of everything, therefore it takes a bit of the excitement away. But it were a little closer to reality, maybe it would be more arousing. But I think he had the intention of getting this type of reaction — grossed out, perverted. I think that was part of the idea… push as far as you can, so when you’re here, people will be okay. I think he did a great service for liberating these so-called perversions.
SW: I think of the general culture seeing this… was it meant to shock, or meant to normalize?
GG: Shock at first, but I think that’s a benefit in the long term.
SG: Do you think these guys gave any thought to this being seen by heterosexuals? I don’t think they did.
SW: I think they had to, because Bob Mizer went to jail for distributing this stuff. They had to know that was a risk they were running.
SG: That’s a risk they were running, but they weren’t doing this for heterosexuals at all.
SW: But how could you escape from consciousness of the dominant culture?
GG: It could be also that they’re not giving a fuck about the dominant culture, and they’re saying it’s time for us to do something for us. We are sexual beings, and we get to have this kind of fun too.
SG: Yes, exactly. I see that in here. This is liberating. They’re saying, if you find this offensive, fuck you. It’s for us.
GG: And if in the long term they get used to it, even better.
SG: I think it would be tough for any man, regardless or orientation, not to emerge from this unaffected.