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‘A Hard Man Is Good to Find!’

  • Art
  • Photographers' Gallery, Soho
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Keith Vaughan, Highgate Men’s Pond Album, 1933 Courtesy Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries
Keith Vaughan, Highgate Men’s Pond Album, 1933 Courtesy Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and GalleriesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Porn is everywhere, just a click away, as freely available as celeb gossip and pictures of your friends’ lunch. 

But until 1967, any representation of the male nude which even hinted at homosexuality was subject to the Obscene Publications Act. Horniness – and specifically queer horniness – was illegal, so homosexual desire was forced underground. That didn’t stop it from flourishing, obviously, and the results are all over this in-depth exhibition of photos of male bodies from all across London from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Despite the brutal repression of homosexuality, London was full of places where it quietly flourished. Bodybuilder Spencer Churchill flexes at the Serpentine Lido for the photographer Paul Hawker, young men lounge in the nude at Highgate Men’s Pond for John S Barrington, tough lads whip off their shirts in King’s Cross for Martin Spenceley. London was alive with eroticism, you just had to know where to look. 

This show is a celebration, a glorification of the male form 

And once you knew, you could purchase. Lots of the images here skirt around the legality of the male nude by being available in bodybuilding magazines, or as a catalogue of physiques for fitness buffs to emulate at home. One amazing image shows Spencer Churchill tensed and glistening while wearing a posing pouch that you could scratch off to reveal the goods beneath. It’s a fascinating portrait of hidden mid-century male desire in London.

But there are ethical questions here too. John S Barrington pretended to be a Vogue photographer to persuade men to pose for him. That’s uncomfortable, exploitative and not really dealt with in the show. Also, lots of the subjects in the exhibition wouldn’t have considered themselves gay or queer either, so framing them anonymously in a queer context totally removes the sitters’ agency.

Then there’s the group of photos of young men lounging around in west London bedrooms and living rooms. They’re amazing images, totally unguarded and joyful, but they were purchased as a box of anonymous negatives from Portobello Antiques Market by Emmanuel Cooper. These men have had no say in their private nude moments being plastered across The Photographers’ Gallery decades after they were taken. This was a time when privacy not only mattered, but had a tangible impact on people’s lives, and this has taken the choice away from them.

So there are issues here and some tricky ethical moments, but there’s still a lot to like. At its best, this show is a celebration of the male form in London from a time when that was an incredibly dangerous thing to celebrate. The thing is, men are hot, always have been, and we should be very grateful that these days we can say that without getting put in prison. 

Written by
Eddy Frankel


Photographers' Gallery
Ramillies St
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Tube: Oxford Circus

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