While Bob Mizer was scouting California’s Muscle Beach, in search for the pinnacle of grinning, flexing pictures of masculinity, there were other men an entire world away who were stripping down for another purpose.
Male nudity was front and center in many pictures of roughhousing soldiers during World War II. Like most of the models in Mizer’s earlier photos, these soldiers were blissfully ignorant of the reality that most men who gazed at them in their nude splendor were entertaining thoughts of lust, not of how to mold and maintain a healthy body.
The 2014 coffee table book, “My Buddy: World War II Laid Bare,” compiled by L.A. photographer Michael Stokes and Taschen Sexy Books Editor Dian Hanson, creates in readers the feeling of voyeurism, a witness to soldiers engaged in seemingly innocent horseplay with strong homoerotic undertones when viewed decades later.
“Sure, it’s logical to assume that most of the soldiers we see in those photos are straight and have no idea just how homoerotic these images appeared,” says Dennis Bell, founder and president of The Bob Mizer Foundation. “It’s also safe to assume that many of these men came from families or communities where boys had to see each other naked for the most innocent of purposes – skinny dipping in the local pond, snapping your buddy with your towel in the gym shower, just to name a couple of scenarios. To them, being nude in front of other men was nothing of which to be ashamed. They might have been used to not having any privacy. And, of course, when men serve their country in times of war, privacy is lacking in just about every sense of the word.”
Indeed, as Stokes and Hanson’s book plainly states, nude soldiers playing around was a matter of bonding, with not a single thought given to the sexuality emanating from the photos that have now found their way to auction sites and estate sales. There should be nothing read into these moments, singularly fun and innocuous, captured on film.
Another immediately noticeable way in which the subjects in Hanson’s book differ so obviously from Mizer’s models is their general appearance and body type. The men in World War II-era, nude-soldier-at-play photos are refreshingly plain in face and average in body. If searching for models among these military men, Mizer might not have given most of them a second thought. These are not the visages and bodies of Greek gods flanked by marble pillars – the ones splayed throughout the pages of “Physique Pictorial” in the 1950s. Though some of the men are muscular and handsome, just as many have a chipped tooth there, or big ears. A bulbous nose. The barely-noticeable beginnings of a tummy. They were tall and scrawny or short and hairy. They weren’t unattainable men – they were your drinking buddy. Your next-door neighbor. Your brother-in-law.
And perhaps that made them even more desirable, and just as deserving of adoration – that these men could be anyone, leaping from a cliff and into a lake below, or wrestling in the sand.
Though most were left unidentified, the men who played for the camera in these candid moments represented the strength of America for one generation, but have entered a new century as inadvertent objects of desire for another.