Traded discreetly and thinly veiled as physique images, photographer Bruce Bellas' scantily-clad and nude Adonises of the 1950s and '60s impacted a generation of queer art, erotica and pornography.
Originally a chemist from Nebraska, Bellas adopted a new California lifestyle as Bruce of Los Angeles after he headed west in the late '40s. There, he'd work with the clothed and unclothed male figure in a distinctly homoerotic milieu years before publishing full-frontal male nudity was legalized. He was, in a sense, the creator of beefcake.
"It was sort of a poorly kept secret," 5. Gallery owner and curator Max Baseman tells SFR, "or had just enough of a veneer so that people could pretend to look the other way."
5. Gallery is an independent space born of Baseman's impulse to showcase work he finds interesting. The freedom and flexibility allotted to a warehouse gallery like Baseman's has brought a wide range of work to the venue, including a decidedly unconventional though thoughtfully curated array of local and national artists. But what brings the photographs of Bellas to Baseman's space for the upcoming Bruce of Los Angeles exhibit?
"They're gorgeous and fantastical in a number of ways," Baseman explains. "The photos may be of giant beach hunks, but there's something sensitive and tender in there."
Though his work has become well-known and widely circulated, Bellas' life remains somewhat enigmatic, "as people behind the camera can be," according to Baseman, but there is familiarity in the images. Whether it's vaguely recognizing the face of a model—a famous bodybuilder, perhaps—or the classic Hollywood lighting left over from the Golden Age and the models' contrapposto posing and campy staging, the essence of particular Hollywood era plays a role in the portraits.
"They're an erotic fantasy, certainly, but they're also historical fantasies," Baseman says. "He goes into Grecian territory along with Hollywood camp. Whether the men are in miner's uniforms, cowboy hats, or with swords—it's all fantasy."
The fantasies played out in cheeky nudes and formal postures were vital for the homosexual underground of the time. Queer folk were hungry for their desires to be validated, expressed and consumed as images, and Bellas launched a successful physique magazine, The Male Figure, in 1956, showcasing and promoting his own work. Nude prints were sold through subterfuge in major cities' hotel rooms rather than risk mailing them cross-country; Bellas played his cards right and was never convicted of any crime, but when depictions of male full-frontal nudity become legal in 1968, his body of work suddenly became tame in the face of the new and heightened pornography and erotica that defined the 1970s. Bellas died not long after, while vacationing with model Scotty Cunningham in 1974.
"What were considered hidden worlds at the time have now become very open in some places," Baseman says, reflecting on Bellas' era and the social change that followed.
Did that change re-contextualize Bellas' body of work as fine art over time, or were the collectors of his heyday consuming it as both erotica and something more?
"I'm sure there were people who recognized it," Baseman says, "but they were and are erotic photographs—the moment of covertly buying one of these pieces must've been invaluable."
I try to imagine that feeling in today's world, when images of homosexual lust can be found more readily than ever. Yet, I experience a precious self-awareness in pondering the thought as I gaze at Bellas' vintage prints. The power of their history takes on an intimate moment between the viewer and the photograph, as it must have over the decades since Bellas began. His work inspired countless queer photographers and artists who followed, such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber, who have since gone on to inspire even newer generations in their own respective ways. Still, the value of Bruce of Los Angeles' images remains as both a testament to surreptitiously thriving within underground culture and in their direct, raw beauty.
"They come from a certain time, but in a way they look timeless…and in another way," Baseman says, "he sets the future."
Bruce of Los Angeles Opening:
5 pm Friday Jan. 24.
2351 Fox Road #700