This section examines the history of photographic images of the muscular male body. The pages are not a fully comprehensive guide to the history and context of this complex field, but may offer some insight into its development. This section should be read in conjunction with the Bench Press and Re-Pressentation sections for a fuller overview of the development of the muscular male body.
Since the invention of the camera people have taken photographs of the male body. Taken in protest at being ignored as one of the inventors of photography the above photograph of his own fake suicide is a self-portrait by Hippolyte Bayard. It is interesting photograph because it is one of the earliest known photographic images of the unclothed male body, a reflection of his self, an act of self-reflexivity evidenced through photography. It is not his actual body but a reflection on how he would like to be seen by himself and others.
The concept of the seen body, of projecting an image of the male body has been present since the beginning of photography. This projection has gradually been sexualised during the history of photography. The body in a photograph has become a canvas, able to mask or reveal the sexuality, identity and desires of the body and its owner. The male body in photography has become an object of desire for both the male and female viewer. The body is on display, open to the viewers gaze, possibly a desiring gaze. In the latter half of the twentieth century it is the muscular male body in particular that has become eroticised as an object of a desiring gaze. In consumer society the muscular male body now acts as a sexualised marketable asset, used by humans, the media and companies to sell product.
How has this sexualised image of the muscular male body developed?
Within the history of art there is a profundity of depiction's of the nude female form upon which the desiring gaze of the male could linger. With the advent of photography images of the nude male body became an accessible space for men and women desiring to look upon the bodies of other men. The nude male images featured in the early history of photography are endearing in their supposed lack of artifice. The bodies are of a natural type: everyday bodies reveal themselves directly to the camera as can be seen in the above anonymous daguerreotype. Although posed and required to hold the stance for a long period of time in order to expose the mercury plate, the model in this daguerreotype assumes a quiet confidence and comfort in his own body, staring directly at the camera whilst revealing his manhood for all to see. This period sees the first true revealing of the male body since the Renaissance, and the beginning of the eroticising of the male body as a visual 'spectacle' in the modern era.
Artists with an inclination towards the beauty of naked men were drawn towards the new medium. The photograph opened up the male body to the desiring gaze of the viewer. The photograph reflected both reality and deception: the reality that these bodies existed in the flesh and the deception that they could be 'had', that the viewer could possess the body by looking, by eroticising, and through purchasing the photograph.
Friendship between men had been generally accepted up until the 18th century but in Victorian times homosexuality was named and classified as a sexual orientation in the early 1870's. According to Michel Foucault this 'friendship' only became a problem with the rise of the powers of the police and the judiciary, who saw it as a deviant act; of course photography, as an instrument of 'truth', could prove the criminal activities of homosexuals and lead to their prosecution. When homosexual acts did come to the attention of the police and the medical profession it led to great scandals such as the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for sodomy.
On reflection there seems to have been an explosion of images around the late 1880's to early 1890's onwards of what we can now call homoerotic imagery; to contemporary eyes the photographs of nude wrestlers by Muybridge have a distinct air of homo-eroticism about them. To keep such images above moral condemnation and within the bounds of propriety men where photographed in poses that were used for scientific studies (as in the case of the Muybridge photographs), as studies for other artists, or in religious poses. They appealed to the classical Greek ideal of masculinity and therefore avoided the sanctions of a society that was, on the surface, deeply conservative. For a brief moment imagine being a homosexual man in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, gazing for the first time at men in close physical proximity, touching each other in the nude, pressing each others flesh when such behaviour was thought of as subversive and illegal. What desires photographs of the male body must have caused to those that appreciated such pleasures, seeing photographs of this kind for the first time.