When I first saw Bob Mizer’s late period color work, it looked to me like the work of an outsider – someone who created great art unintentionally, foolishly stumbling upon something truly provocative. It was so unpolished, so ridiculous, and at times so bizarre that the notion seemed perfectly logical – this stuff came from the bowels of some unstructured lunatic mind.
His black and white photographs from the 1940s and 1950s begged to tell another story. Bob was an ambitious young photographer, whose work was so sharp and cutting edge that it became the gold standard of a new genre. His magazine, Physique Pictorial, was the first of its kind, connecting men all over the world to some sense of community. It’s no easy feat to build an empire on a stack of photographs, but Bob made it happen, and he couldn’t have done it by accident.
So what was Bob’s motivation in the end?
I sat down with one of his closest friends and contemporaries, David Hurles, a few years back, as part of a larger oral history project. It was my intention to get to know the man behind the camera. During our hour-long interview at a Sizzler on Hollywood Blvd, David painted a picture of a meticulous and intentional artist, with a twisted sense of humor perhaps, but certainly no fool.
Below is a short excerpt from that interview.
Did you ever sit in on one of Bob’s sessions? Not directly, though I did shoot stuff on his roof on a couple of occasions, and I certainly photographed people who’d been in one of Bob’s sessions. I did watch quite a few of his sessions [videos], though they were hard to watch, because it’s two hours of…He loved to let those cameras roll. Tape was cheap.
You can learn the most about his sessions from his comments in the Physique Pictorial. Unfortunately, he shot so many hundreds of models that never appeared in PP, so there’s no written word on them. If possible, he would tell you how a model had acted during a certain session. A lot of it was unflattering, as it should have been.
What do you mean by unflattering? There’s always a tendency to tell the bad things, because they’re more interesting. Like Jerry Suter. He said how Jerry told him he’d have to kill anybody if they came on him, and how he didn’t like gay people, and how difficult he was to work with. I’m sure it’s absolutely true. In general if they were hard to work with, Bob made a point of telling it, and occasionally, if they were real easy to work with, he’d put in a few words.
So if they were hard to work with, would he continue to use them? Only in desperation. In his mind he black listed lots of models but they kept coming back around. Shooting was Bob’s life. I mean he had to shoot everyday.
Did he shoot absolutely everyday? Absolutely.
Sunday to Sunday? Yeah. That’s why he has so many peculiar matches of models. You know, they were there and he had to shoot something. It’s constitutional. He had a needed to shoot something.
How many hours a day did he spend shooting? At least a couple of hours. He did most of his office work in the evening, and took a nap every afternoon, and he basically didn’t shoot at night. He also tended to spend his mornings going for bike rides and driving around. So the mid part of the day, everyday, was the shooting time. So everything was really kind of automated, or rather, habitual. But you know he was always loaded and ready. I mean, the camera was loaded. He was never loaded. Bob was a tea-totaler. He loved to shoot -– the experience. It was, I wouldn’t say addictive, but routine.
Would you say that it was unhealthy, or was that just who he was? It was just who he was. He had, when we met, been doing it for 25 years already. As long as there were new models, he’d shoot solos, and if there were no new models, he would come up with some ungodly combination of what was available.
Which sometimes came out kind of strange. Are there any of those sessions that strike you as particularly odd? He put Jerry, who was very pretty and appeared on the cover of one PP, with a guy who was a piggy type, which was in great contrast to Jerry’s beauty and of course the guy came right on him, and despite Jerry’s threats to kill anybody, no one died. But that was Bob’s way. There’s no doubt in my mind that Bob made those combinations with malice of forethought.
He once told me that if he knew the model was naughty – was wanted by the police or something – he would tend to make a scene, and put something of that nature in it, so the model was both aware of his guilt and also working from his nature. And Bob did that intentionally.
So if a model was arrested stealing or hustling or something, he would stick them in a prison setting? Yes, indeed. That was true Bob, right there. And he would intentionally pit model against model if he felt they were being bratty? Yeah. Not to the point of violence or anything, but to a point of awareness. You can definitely see in some of the videos a weird relationship between the models. Almost like they hated each other. That’s right. He’d put somebody who he thought he was so tough, and put him with somebody who didn’t act that way but was so tough, to show them a one-up. Bob was great at that sort of thing. Do you think his coupling was something that set him apart from other people? Yeah, I think so, because other people might make those combinations by accident, or even avoid those combinations. You know, I avoided quite a few of them in my time, because I didn’t wan y any untoward activity. I think only once it went over the edge, where they were fighting mad with each other, which is pretty great out of all the matches I shot. But Bob would take a little more chance.