Props, costumes added unique touch to Mizer's photos, films (Part II)

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Props, costumes added unique touch to Mizer's photos, films (Part II)

Author’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about the props, costumes and scenery used in Bob Mizer’s photos and films. 

After Bob Mizer died in the late spring of 1992, Wayne Stanley, Mizer’s longtime friend, worked quickly to clean up the properties that made up Mizer’s compound. As he did so, one could find crumbling Grecian columns and statuary that had served as the backdrop for many of the photographer’s earlier photos of muscled models. Costumes were boxed up and nearly discarded forever. Among the personal effects were Indian headdresses, cowboy hats, military uniforms, Roman tunics, and those famous posing straps. 

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Mizer’s virtuous benevolent Greek gods, Roman gladiators, cowboys, sailors, and policemen were popular indeed, but equally popular were his ‘bad boys’ – the hoodlums, thugs, bikers, and those characters who thumbed their noses at society, as many of Mizer’s real-life models did off camera. 

“Who doesn’t love a bad boy? Our costume collection includes items that would attract leathermen and their admirers, too,” says Dennis Bell, president and CEO of the Bob Mizer Foundation. “In postwar America, the teenage hoodlum was a figure represented in countless films, such as James Dean’s ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ They were brooding, they were mysterious, but they were also incredibly sexy.”

“And what would our favorite bad boys be without their bikes?” Bell quips. “Motorcycles as symbols of street trade masculinity played a big part in Mizer’s images and movies. Throughout his entire career, you could find models posed outside, leaning on a motorcycle or straddling it.”

Mizer used the entire sprawling expanse of his compound for his outdoor shoots, including his rooftop ‘mountain’ scenery and his large swimming pool. But interior shots became familiar to Athletic Model Guild fans as well. The multi-colored tiles in his shower were often the backdrop for one or more models soaping up and grinning for the camera (including Paul Ferguson, one of the two brothers charged in the murder of Hollywood silent film actor Ramon Novarro). Mizer’s own living space wasn’t even off limits, with models such as John Apache being photographed in Mizer’s messy, cramped kitchen, bedroom, or office, sometimes flanked by one of his housecats. 

“Like a lot of artists, Bob Mizer wasn’t exactly known for being tidy,” Bell laughs. “But that wasn’t the point of these photos. He wanted to document his models wherever they might be found on a regular day. And since a lot of them lived at the compound itself, it made sense to shoot them in their natural setting.”

A Bob Mizer specialty was the inclusion of model nameplates in photos, posing films and story films. It was yet another way to connect the model with the viewer.

“In a lot of Mizer’s films, you’ll see models gripping their nameplates and smiling and waving at the camera,” Bell notes. “We have those same nameplates in our archives, too. I’m not aware of any other photographers of Mizer’s era who used that special touch.”

Selected costumes and props are brought from the archives and put on display at the Foundation’s monthly film screenings at 920 Larkin Street in downtown San Francisco. The next screening will take place starting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 6, during the city’s First Thursdays Art Walk event. The screenings are free and open to the public.

“All of these props are a part of Bob Mizer’s history, and of the history of male physique photography,” Bell says. “It is our mission to offer them the same protection and the same care as all of the other items in our vast archives.”