It's hard to believe today -- what with underwear-clad models dancing in Kmart commercials and Joe Millionaire running around in a skimpy Speedo -- that twenty years ago, the idea of a man as a sex object was considered outrageous and clearly in bad taste.
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Then, in the 1980s, along came a generation of photographers with an interest -- prurient and otherwise -- in the topic. Their pioneering erotic photographs of men not as pornography but as fine art has brought us, I believe, to where we are today, with millions every week ogling that buff Joe Millionaire wearing that Speedo.
Among the most highly regarded of the contemporary photographers specializing in what is called "beefcake" photography is New Yorker Bruce Weber, who is the subject of the elegant and somewhat shocking Bruce Weber at Judish Photography (located within the capacious Judish Fine Arts, 3011 Vallejo Street, 303-571-5556). Weber had been one of those '80s trailblazers, but he's never been more successful than he is now, making this rare Denver display of his work an important art event.
Weber has a distinctive style that combines attributes of fashion photography and fine-art photography. Traveling with a crew of stylists and technicians, his models are meticulously groomed, have idealized physiques and are, more often than not, young. The photographer seeks out actors, dancers, construction workers and athletes to serve as his models. The poses they strike are seemingly -- though not actually -- candid, even in traditional portraits like "Ben Ellsworth, Camp Longwood, Spitfire Lake, New York" (above), a gelatin silver print. In this photo, Weber, using strong light-to-dark contrasts, imbues the figure with a sexual edge, even though Ellsworth is seen only from the chest up and is not technically nude (he's wearing athletic shoulder pads).
Other Weber photos in the Judish show depict identical twins nakedly cavorting in nature, nude young men with their dogs, and the dogs all by themselves. These kinds of photos have made Weber widely influential, especially in the field of advertising. In fact, the show sort of looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch clothing catalogue without the clothing -- which, when you think about it, makes Bruce Weber fairly provocative. Fortunately, the show doesn't close until March 1, so there's still plenty of opportunity for viewers to blush.