This is part two in a series of excerpts from the biographical introduction to Brooklyn Boys, the new monograph on Danny Fitzgerald and Les Demi Dieux.
Fitzgerald also looked beyond Brooklyn in the late 1950s when he began photographing the young men he met at Abe Goldberg’s gym, worlds away on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A small but fit man with his Hasselblad camera, Fitzgerald’s earliest models—Nestor, Orest, and Jerry Albanese—were aspiring bodybuilders 20 years his junior, from working class neighborhoods and families similar, but distant from his own. He met many of them at the gym, and earned their trust by asking their assistance with his own workout or partnering with them for training. In the process he impressed them with his knowledge of worldly literature and culture, as well as his ingratiating encouragement of their physical beauty, and a ten or fifty dollar bill slipped into the pocket of their chinos.
Many of his earliest photographs were standard physique compositions, shot at Goldberg’s gym in posing pouches and bikini trunks, and processed privately by a Manhattan photo-finishing service. For a period, Fitzgerald even worked for accomplished “beefcake” photographer Alonzo Hanagan, known in the trade periodicals as “Lon of New York.” Using Hanagan’s darkroom in Hell’s Kitchen and the recognizable props that filled his studio, Fitzgerald mimicked the photographer’s stock posing gestures and tableaus against a standard seamless background, seldom indicating the departure his later work would take.
Like everything else in his life, Fitzgerald’s early photography was all shot and produced secretly, with little more than the photographs themselves as records and clues to Fitzgerald’s motives and process. Notes in a brief diary of the months in 1961, in which his rambunctious muse and apparently unrequited love-interest Orest joins the army, are possibly the only records of the photographer’s longings and thought processes.
“Torment the order of the day,” he begins the entry for Wednesday, February 8, 1961:
“I arrive late: Orest starts without me; doesn’t seem to want to train with me — the same desire to appear training alone was evident on Monday. What is the reason? Is he ashamed to train with me? What shall I do? —how proceed? I cannot lose his friendship, yet I have all I can do to hold my temper. In the old days it was “we” — now when training Orest says ‘I.'”
Though it is not easy for the modern reader to put oneself back into the mind of Fitzgerald and his contemporaries, it is important to note how different attitudes and laws about homosexuality and male nudity were then from now. A mere fifty years ago in 1963, the penalties for homosexual behavior in the United States varied from two to ten years imprisonment, and fines as much as $2,000.
Before the Stonewall revolution of 1969, McCarthy-era censorship made it against the law to ship male frontal nude photographs through the United States Postal Service, and most of the famous photographers of the day, including Hanagan, spent time in jail for making prints of this nature. The photographs that were sold through physique magazine mail order services were airbrushed, unless posing pouches (real or painted on to the photograph) hid the genitalia. Photographers would only produce frontal nudes as a special favor to private collectors, a memento for the models, or a gift for a friend, and often hand deliver them in plain brown wrappers.
This was the world in which Fitzgerald lived, and began producing and selling his work in 1958 and ’59, as photographs of his early models gained reputation within the small, covert world of physical culture enthusiasts who were fond of his models. And though his photography would see greater publication in the coming decade, this cloud of censure and secrecy would hang over the entire body of his work the rest of his life.
Continue to Part 3: Richard Bennett >>>
See all the posts from the preface of Brooklyn Boys.