Saturday, April 10, 2010

Vintage Male Physique Photography: 1940's - 1950's Mail Order Men

The Art of Al Urban

Thanks again to JD for sending more from his collection.  JD said he's happy to share with VGMH, but from past experiences (not including VGMH), he wasn't so happy where parts of his collection eventually wound up.  So at JD's request, I've watermarked the images in as subtle a way as possible.

A review of Al Urban's professional history began here at VGMH earlier this week (please see the April 5th posting), which included this advertisement that Al placed in the April 1947 Popular Mechanics for non-nude physique photographs by mail. Part of what's impressive about his art is that he usually photographed using an 8x10 or 5x7 plate camera, with precise lighting to get just the perfect shots he desired. Mr. Urban lived between 1917-1992 and to many, his works are considered outstanding glimpses into the masked media of male physique/smut which existed just beneath the covers in a very strict "Leave it to Beaver" type world.

At twenty years old, Al began to place ads looking for "male figure studies" of body builders in the New York City market. The muscle men started arriving and the photo shoots began to get noticed by other athletes who wanted Al to photograph them.  It's obvious Al had a true appreciation of the male form and respected his subject matter. Much through his own self-promotion, Al's work began to get published in physique magazines such as Strength and Health. As noted in the Popular Mechanics post, he worked out of a Chicago studio in 1947, but also generated a lot of his photography through New York/New Jersey. He also tried his luck in California. Among his famous subjects was Steve Wengryn.  The Popular Mechanics ad mentions Harold Zinkin (shown in the ad's photo) as well as Gene Stanlee who held the title "Best Built Man in the Navy" and Lenny Schaefer.  As to be expected from a great salesman, Al notes that all photos were "pesonally taken by AL URBAN, WORLD'S FOREMOST PHYSIQUE PHOTOGRAPHER..."

It's reported that he had some run-ins with the police (not uncommon with men who were in his line of work during that legally-homophobic era), and while unconfirmed, may have been arrested and jailed several times during his career. Sadly for admirers of his art, the police raids are reported to have also confiscated many of his photographs that now seem to be lost forever. 

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