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The Man Behind
the Camera

"When George asked you to do something, you did it," quipped James Ogle, George Platt Lynes' studio assistant, according to David Leddick's new book, Naked Men. And that may be a most revealing statement about Lynes' studio process and interactions with his models.



At the prime of his career during the '30's and '40's, George Lynes, as he was called then, was exceedingly handsome, charming and persuasive. He was also at the epicenter of a circle of powerful homosexual men that exerted influence at New York's artistic institutions. His early mentors were Monroe Wheeler, later the exhibition director at the Museum of Modern Art, and the writer Glenway Wescott, who provided Lynes with social cachet and business connections. An old school mate Lincoln Kirstein, later an arts impresario and a founder of the New York City Ballet, provided Lynes with commissions to photograph both George Balanchine's dances as well as the company's principal artists.


Lynes supported himself with portrait photography for the socially prominent and fashion work for leading magazines, but those assignments didn't hold his interest over time. In fact, before his death in 1955 at age 48, he destroyed most of his fashion work, the very photographs that had made him famous. His real passion was for the male nude, a pursuit he began as early as 1929. In view of prevailing laws and social climate, it was a daring undertaking. In fact, many times during his career, he was reluctant to send his nude photographs through the mail, fearful of legal reprisals.


Lynes' interest in male nude photography continued for over two decades even though very few of these pictures were exhibited during his lifetime. His work was influenced by Surrealism, the seminal avant-garde art movement of the '30's, evidenced by his Mythology series, visual interpretations of Greek legends.


Photographic shoots for the New York City Ballet gave Lynes ready access to good looking models. Sometimes models were paid for their services, but often lovers, friends, neighbors and even studio assistants were called upon to pose.


Lynes was inventive and uncompromising in achieving his vision. He employed a variety of clever techniques to get his sometimes reluctant models to disrobe. The artist Paul Cadmus recalls how Lynes "used flattery to make everyone feel so comfortable."


Another well-known American painter recalls accompanying a friend to Lynes' studio. On arrival they were immediately asked to join several clothed men Lynes was positioning in front of his camera. Time passed as the models, props and lights were moved into their exacting places. To the artist's surprise, when Lynes was finally satisfied with what he saw, he ordered the men to strip. Everyone obeyed and the shutter began to click.


A different variation on this approach was to start the photo shoot while the models were fully clothed. As Lynes exposed frame after frame, he would encourage his models to perform a strip tease for the camera. By degrees, as inhibitions faded, more and more was revealed to the lens.


A close examination of prints made from a group of abandoned negatives reveals an extraordinary Lynes' technique. The three youths in the sequential photographs are seen in various states of undress as they disrobe and ultimately fall, entwined on a bed. On closer look one can see that their eyes have been taped shut! Leddick, suggests that Lynes may have felt the "models would be less inhibited...if they couldn't see the camera or each other."


In the many ways Lynes worked with models, he was always in full creative control. He amassed a body of images that are as notable for their formal beauty as their quiet eroticism. His interest in glamour and design can be seen in his mastery of composition and dramatic studio lighting. In each picture, light is skillfully played against dark, as every element--prop, gesture, turn of a head or arm--rests in perfect, harmonious tableau.


In an era when erotic photography of the male nude was taboo, Lynes was a true pioneer, composing stunningly beautiful pictures, revolutionary in their originality and sexually charged themes. The quantity, subject and quality of his work was prodigious for its time. With the privilege of hindsight, we can see the enormous influence of Lynes' art on virtually all of the important photographers of the male nude that followed him.







Vance Martin is a curator and fine art photography dealer based in San Francisco. Questions regarding George Platt Lynes photographs can be directed to:

Further biographical information about George Platt Lynes can be found in Naked Men, soon to be available through the QAR bookstore.

Charles Levinson aka Le Vincent
Paris, 1930
vintage gelatin silver print
6-5/8 x 4-5/8 inches


The Ritter Brothers
New York, circa 1935
vintage gelatin silver print
10 x 8 inches


Jacques D'Amboise in
Christensen's "Filling Station"
New York, circa 1940
vintage gelatin silver print
9-7/8 x 7-15/16 inches
Charles "Tex" Smutney and Charles "Buddy" Stanley
New York, 1941
vintage gelatin silver print
7-1/2 x 9-3/8 inches
Francis Burton Harrison
New York, circa early 1940's
vintage gelatin silver print
9-1/4 x 7-1/2 inches
Ray Richter
Hollywood, 1947
vintage gelatin silver print
7-5/8 x 9-1/2
Carlos Mc Clendon
Hollywood, 1947
vintage gelatin silver print
9-3/16 x 7-1/2
Nicholas Magallanes and Francisco Moncion in "Orpheus"
New York, circa 1948
vintage gelatin silver print
8-3/4 x 7-9/16 inches
Dick Beard
New York, 1950
vintage gelatin silver print
9-1/4 x 7-1/4 inches
vintage gelatin silver print
9-1/4 x 7-1/2 inches
Bernardo Rostad
New York, circa early 1950's
vintage gelatin silver print
6-9/16 x 6-1/2 inches