Monday, October 8, 2012

los angeles transformations: bruce of la

This biographical introduction was commissioned by Antinous Press for their 2008 hardcover volume Bruce of Los Angeles: Inside/Outside. It was intended to accompany the brief intro by New Yorker columnist Vince Aletti. Unfortunately, the publication became too unwieldy and my piece was cut at the eleventh hour for space.

Los Angeles Transformations:
Bruce Harry Bellas, 1919-1974


In the first half of the Twentieth Century most of Los Angeles California’s population was from somewhere else. Between 1910 and 1950, a booming economy, social freedom and the entertainment industry made Los Angeles the true “land of opportunity” for more than a million new residents. Hollywood in particular was a place where one could completely transform oneself. Through the magic of the camera, chorus girls became sophisticates, jocks became gladiators, cowboys became legends, and farm boys became notorious. So in the late 1940s, when Nebraska high school teacher and amateur shutterbug Bruce Bellas lost his teaching job, he too went to Los Angeles.

Bellas had made several earlier road trips to Los Angeles while living in Nebraska. Hundreds of miles of flat and open highways beckoned from the farmlands to the Rocky Mountains, and onward to the Pacific coast, and simply by taking a ride, a closeted high school chemistry teacher like Bellas could put some distance between himself and the small-minded confines of the tiny farming community where he lived. Along the highway, he would pick up hitchhikers and servicemen, and take them back to his motel rooms where he would convince them to let him photograph them nude. His camera and the anonymity of the road allowed him a freedom that Nebraska could not. With just the promise of a free photograph, he could have a handsome young buck nude in his room and a photographic memento of his own freedom to take back home to his secret journals. Over time, those journals became “sample books” and their audience a discrete group of other closeted Midwestern men who ordered prints that Bellas would deliver to their doors. His secret life on the road continued until Bellas was arrested for taking nude male photographs and the police report made its way back to his school board in Nebraska. Thus began Bellas’ own transformation.

In Los Angeles, Bellas’ camera and anonymity became his entrée into a new world. He continued to photograph men, beginning with the bodybuilders on Muscle Beach in Venice California, and soon became known for his classic professional imagery and easy style. It is no small detail that, in 1948, within only a few years of arriving in California, Bellas applied for his first business license and transformed himself into “Bruce of Los Angeles.” In turn, like the city whose name he took, he and his camera turned common gym rats and street trade into glowing Hollywood beauties and masculine ideals. In the process, he himself developed into a photographer whose work would be celebrated in every physique and “beefcake” magazine of the next 20 years.

As with fellow beefcake photographers Bob Mizer and Lon of New York, Bellas’ subjects varied from bodybuilders, to hustlers, to the boys next door. He photographed stars like Steve Reeves, Zabo Koszewski, George Eiferman and Ed Fury, beefcake magazine favorites Mark Nixon, Keith Stephan, Steve Wengryn and Brian Idol, and street trade like Joe Dallesandro, Scotty Cunningham, Don Hawksley and the Wilde brothers. Yet, Bellas brought his own gifts to the beefcake market. He could better restrain his “campy” tendency than could Mizer, and was more technically accomplished than Lon. Meanwhile, despite censorship laws that sent Mizer and Lon to jail, Bellas continued in secret to photograph frontal nudes and erotic images, which he sold in private.

Within a period of only ten years, Bellas became so successful as “Bruce of Los Angeles” that in 1958 he was able to purchase a spacious home in the suburb of Los Alamitos on Kensington Road. The garage and backyard became his photography studio; his new darkroom a larger factory for the mail-order business he had created from selling his prints. He explored shooting 8mm motion film, as well, capturing models around his home or on Southern California mountain trails, with more natural settings and slightly more believable storylines than Mizer. He also began publishing his own physique magazine “The Male Figure.” Having for years seen his images printed in magazines produced by Mizer, Joe Weider and others, he could now edit his own publication that would showcase his own work.

All of these developments afforded Bellas the freedom to reinvent his photography once again, choosing younger, more sensual and natural physiques, and shooting more frontal nude and erotic work. This would help continue his success through to the late 1960s when the end of censorship laws made the coy photography of the beefcake era obsolete nearly overnight.

Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Bellas also continued to take his camera on road trips, no longer an escape from his hometown confines, but rather from the restrictions of studio photography. On these trips, he shot still and film footage on-site at bodybuilding competitions, rodeos, and New Orleans Mardi Gras frivolities with the same casual intimacy and honest journalism of the road trip photographs of his Nebraska years. These road photographs and films add another dimension to Bellas’ work, introducing us to his humanity and personal connection to the pre-Stonewall communities of men who embraced him. It was, in fact, at one of these rodeo events in Canada in 1974, accompanied by live-in model Scotty Cunningham, that Bellas died. Almost immediately after his death, Bellas and his photography were transformed once more. “Kensington Road,” a new business that took its name from his home of more than a decade and a half, was quickly set up to mass produce and market prints of his work, with an even greater emphasis on his previously hidden frontal nudes and erotic images.

Today, recent access to Bellas’ studio archive and estate has brought to light a treasure trove of color work and films, transforming our understanding of Bruce Bellas once again. Because black-and-white prints were easier to mass produce and market than color prints and films, the extent of this part of his body of work was not widely known or appreciated in his lifetime. Most importantly, Bellas was not recognized as the gifted colorist that he was. In his color images, previously known details are surprisingly fresh and palpable. What was a mere prop in black-and-white, the red beach ball, blue posing pouch or green backdrop now becomes the central color element that informs the entire image, anchoring the composition and teasing out all the surrounding hues. The impact of these color images further establishes Bellas as one of the premier photographic artists of the beefcake era.

Jim Kempster
Bruce of Los Angeles: Inside/Outside (Antinous Press) 2008
[ISBN-10: 1576874699]

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