Photographer Danny Fitzgerald (1921-2000) was born in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn and produced male nude physique photography for a brief span from 1958 to 1968. He and his partner Richard Bennett produced and marketed their photographs under the pseudonym “Les Demi Dieux.”
Surprisingly contemporary in his approach to both the male physique and photographic technique, the photographer behind the studio “Les Demi Dieux” was little known among collectors until after his death. Danny Fitzgerald was born in Brooklyn, New York to first-generation Italian-Irish parents, and developed a love for art and film from an early age. Though he would travel the world with his camera and his partner Richard Bennett at his side, the working-class Italian-American neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn remained his home and the backdrop to much of his photography.
Throughout the early 1960s, under the name “Les Demi Dieux,” Fitzgerald’s male nudes appeared regularly on the covers and pages of slickly designed Joe Weider publications like The Young Physique, Muscles a Go-Go, Demi Gods and Era: the publisher’s compilation volume celebrating the best photographers of the 1960s. Les Demi Dieux photographs featured popular models like Richard Bennett, Jerry Albanese and Vince Perri and lent Weider’s publications a visual impact and artistic quality that surpassed the average male physique magazines of the period.With the recent resurgence of interest in the works of Fitzgerald’s contemporaries like Mel Roberts, Bruce Bellas, and Walter Kundzicz of Champion Studio, male nude photography from the early 1960s is being reevaluated for its history, technique and artistic value. Where the available images by Roberts, Bellas and Kundzicz seldom transcend the limitations of the early ’60s soft-core and beefcake magazines that published them, Fitzgerald’s body of work includes cityscapes, landscapes and portraiture giving his nudes a larger context and inviting a wider aesthetic dialogue.
Because his photography was influenced more by 20th Century art and film than by the work of the “beefcake” photographers who preceded him, Fitzgerald’s images were often free of the artifice and clichés of standard physique photography. His subjects engage the viewer as arrestingly as in the photojournalistic portraits of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lang, and are deeply tied to their relationship to the City, as with the images of Robert Frank and Alfred Stieglitz. Like the work of the photographers, filmmakers, and modern artists that inspired him, Fitzgerald’s compositions tilt off-center with cinematographic precariousness. Shadows slice dramatically across a naked youth reclining in a naturally lit interior. Bennett’s fleshy muscle is paired with the cold white marble torso of Eros or a long branch of lilies, more than a decade before Mapplethorpe would make similar visceral juxtapositions. Furthermore, Fitzgerald’s photographic technique possesses consistently vivid tonal range, precise focus and flawless clarity, and his photo session notes evidence the meticulous care he took with the details of film, lighting, lenses, f-stop and time of day.
But the images that went virtually unseen in his lifetime are perhaps the most enthralling. They are the photojournalistic images that diverge from the realm of physique photography, and therefore were never published with his other work. In these, Fitzgerald captures a moment both in time and outside of time. The setting, the elements, the clothing and hairstyles are unquestionably of a period, and yet the subjects exist with a presence that is timeless. Brooklyn boys play cards or smoke cigarettes on their Carroll Gardens streets. A towheaded youth leans into his own reflection in a Bourbon Street shop window. A Canadian army veteran leans somberly on a park bench. How Fitzgerald and Bennett persuaded and directed these young men to pose for the camera is often as intriguing a question as any other about the youths themselves. And in themselves, they are indeed intriguing. They seem to exist between times: between then and now; between innocence and street savvy; between boyhood and adulthood. Yet they are unmistakably and eternally present in the images Fitzgerald captured. Like the demigods for whom he and Bennett named their studio, his subjects exist on the cusp between the mortality of time and an eternal presence.