In postwar Britain, it was illegal to make and distribute homoerotic images, but a new exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery is now showcasing the fascinating and previously unseen photographs of men’s bodies captured during this time. The exhibition, titled “A Hard Man Is Good to Find!”, delves into the clandestine visual culture that emerged in postwar Britain, when any depiction of male nudity that suggested homosexuality was still subject to the 1857 Obscene Publications Act.
The exhibition displays photographs by physique photographers such as John S Barrington and Angus McBean, who captured images of dancers and bodybuilders. David Dulak, a dancer found by Barrington in 1938 on Charing Cross Road, was introduced to theatre photographer McBean, and his study was featured on the cover of Richard Buckle’s progressive dance journal, Ballet. Bill Green, who specialized in photographs of bodybuilders, set up Vince Studio in Marylebone in 1946. Prints could be ordered from catalogue sheets advertised in the classifieds of Health and Strength magazine, always with a gutter in the middle for discreet posting without creasing any image.
Basil Clavering and John Charles Pankhurst built a studio in the basement of Clavering’s home on Denbigh Street, Pimlico, where they recruited military men to model in authentic uniforms. Clavering also innovated the “storyette,” in which the catalogue sheet of photos available to order would set out a narrative drama like film stills from a motion picture. Meanwhile, Anthony C Burls engaged young men to model through street casting and used his coffee shop in Chelsea, casual work at Battersea Funfair, and gym attendance in Brixton to find working-class men to photograph.
The exhibition also showcases the anonymous body of work known as “The Portobello Boys,” which documents young men posing, in turns uncertainly and assertively, in states of undress. The photographs in the exhibition provide a glimpse into a clandestine visual culture of men’s bodies that emerged during a time when making and distributing homoerotic images was a criminal offense in Britain. While the 1955 Wolfenden Report and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act marked the partial decriminalization of gay sexual activity and sparked gay liberation and the fight for social equality, any depiction of male nudity that suggested homosexuality still remained subject to legal repercussions.