Inventors of Gay: Bruce of Los Angeles
Bruce of Los Angeles
1909 - 1974
This pillar of the golden age of physique photography captured the perfect bodies of the times, including Jack Lalanne, Joe Dallesandro, and the top competitive body builders of the day.
Born Bruce Harry Bellas in Nebraska in 1909, he made his way to Los Angeles in the mid 1940s and taught himself the skills he would need to open his own studio by 1948. Like his familiar contemporary, Bob Mizer of the Athletic Model Guild, he trawled the body builders at Muscle Beach in Venice for models. He was an early supplier of body builder shots for Joe Weider's muscle magazines.
Some models were very open to more than legitimate body builder shots and soon his archives were full of posing strap shots, completely nude work, and male couple shots—which were rare at the time. He also shot many black models, both draped and undraped, which was notable in the 1950s and '60s.
Full frontal nude photographs were illegal to own, let alone sell, so instead of including that material in his mail order catalog, he would travel with a suitcase full of samples and set up individual sales calls with collectors of the contraband work in hotel rooms.
He successfully launched his own magazine, The Male Figure, which was competitive with the other beefcake mags of the times like Physique Pictorial and Fizeek. In 1968, when explicit magazines and photographs became legal to distribute, the classic poses and art-driven set ups that Bruce had employed seemed quaint and he drifted away from the work. When he died in 1974, much of his vast archive was dispersed to parts unknown, and regarded as having little value. In the 1980s a resurgence in classic physique photography arrived and now his work is highly collectable.
Why we care:
Bruce churned out a vast collection of dream material that spoke to and coalesced a gay male audience. The photographs and magazines became a way to feel connected to a secret, closeted community while at the same time portraying a multiracial, homo-sensual ideal. His influence can be seen in the work of Herb Ritts, Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber.
All the physique photographers of the day, who freely shared their new work and model contacts with each other in weekly gatherings.
Want to see more?
The Stephen Cohen Gallery on Los Angeles opens their show "The History of Bruce: The Extraordinary Life & Times of Bruce of L.A., 1948-1974" on January 26, and it runs through March 17. For more information visit stephencohengallery.com
"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.