David L Chapman, a Seattle-based high school teacher and self-described “historian and collector of interesting images” had already written a number of books on the history of bodybuilding when he got the idea for American Hunks.
“I wanted to show that muscular men have been used in advertising and in comic books and movies and product display for just as long as beautiful women have,” he says. “And that they’ve been used as the same thing: marketing tools.”
“The images [in the book] were just leading up to what we have now,” agrees Xtra West contributor Brett Josef Grubisic, who wrote the book’s introduction. “The commercial culture adopted the muscular male as a way of selling things and as commercial culture increased so has the number of naked men in the world for us to look at.
“It’s almost like a natural progression of something that started happening a hundred years ago.”
According to the book, in the 1860s vaudeville and circus strongmen lifted weights and snapped chains to impress audiences. Then Anglo-German muscleman Eugen Sandow came along with a physique impressive enough to be an act all its own.
Advertisers caught on and used muscular models to sell everything from toys to chalk.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs like Charles Atlas began selling mail-order muscle building courses that emphasized manhood over muscles.
The “overall masculinization of society,” the book says, happened when America encouraged their young men to get fit and ready for war — both overseas and in the group showers where they would compare themselves to other men.
Back home their WWII pin-up girls were taking it off for Playboy. (Appropriately the magazine called the 1950s “The Age of the Chest” but they were talking about the male chest, as seen on Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and William Holden in Picnic.)
And like the dirty stag movies of that era, magazines in the 1950s “also first catered overtly to gay tastes and this provided a whole new venue for pictures of the American hunk.”
In the 1960s The Age of the Chest turned into the Age of Aquarius and then into Vietnam as physique photography “split into two separate genres: bodybuilding photography and soft-core porn,” American Hunks points out. “It would be nearly two decades after the troops had come home that Rocky and Rambo would redeem the withered and detumescent masculinity of American soldiers.”
For Chapman the images in the book (all of which come from his private collection) show “not only how muscular men have been portrayed and recorded but also how the body has changed in the last century, due to advances in nutrition and training” that made it easier to build muscle.
“In the 1960s only a few people were muscular in the sense that we would consider them muscular today,” he says. “Most people were pretty undeveloped in their musculature [so] the introduction of bodybuilding had a tremendous impact.”
At the same time, he says, straight women and gay men “discovered muscularity and liked it. So [suddenly we started] seeing a lot more images of semi- or even naked men in the media. It was rare to see that before.”
Grubisic agrees. “Now we can stroll through a department store and we see hundreds of images of muscular men,” he says.
“Whereas in former times we would have seen far fewer of them. And I think if they’re more overtly sexualized in the commercial world they just have a much more powerful influence in our culture of what a man should be.”
These images of muscularity, says Grubisic, are “equated to masculinity and have a way of defining — in a restrictive way — what masculinity is and what is acceptable as masculinity.”
The downside to all this eye candy, Grubisic says, is “the impact that that kind of image has on those of us who aren’t like that.”
Ironically, both Chapman and Grubisic claim their favourite images from the book aren’t even naughty ones. Chapman loves a line from a girls’ 1950s or ’60s comic book that says “musclemen have no souls” because “it’s just so corny and ridiculous.”
Grubisic, meanwhile, has a soft spot for “some of the objects: the potato sack, a pop bottle — just those things that I’d never been aware of.”
Chapman says his pre-internet hunt for such artifacts was limited to “putting ads in antique newspapers and hoping someone wrote back” or tracking down the beefcake photographers themselves. On a few occasions he even visited the publisher of Physique Pictorial, Bob Mizer.
“He had this crazy menagerie plus photo studio plus residence plus zoo and it was the most bizarre place ever,” Chapman recalls. “I walked in and I immediately recognized a lot of the backyard because it had been photographed so often in Physique Pictorial. I asked him if he had any older physique photographs and he said, ‘oh yes, just look through there and see if there’s anything you want.’
“The place was just filthy. It was crawling with vermin and dust was everywhere and there were several models, I guess, walking around — some of them naked so that was distracting when I was trying to look at photographs.
“Then there was a dogfight while I was there. Plus the police were called when a fistfight broke out between two of the guys. It was just a surreal experience.”
So was the hunt worth it? Writing in American Hunk’s foreword about the very first copy of Physique Pictorial he ever saw, Chapman says, “Every now and then I look through the mag, and I am instantly transported back to my youth and that first magical moment when I discovered the joys of the American Hunk…
“The creator of that old magazine, Robert Mizer, is long since dead, as are [model] John Tristram and probably all the other men in the pictures, but on those pages they are still youthful and beautiful. And the men are just as sexy now as they were back then.”