Serving up half a century worth of muscle, cult writer Petra Mason celebrates the meatier male physique in her new book
Having already written books on legendary pin-up models Bunny Yeager and Bettie Page, cultural historian Petra Mason has now shifted her focus onto the more meaty male equivalent. Beefcake: 100% Rare, All Natural presents an alternative to the over-saturated hyper-sexuality of women by bringing together dozens of the 20th century's most primed and pumped pecs. These large, muscular men cover themselves often with nothing more than a bit of cloth around their nether regions, and just as frequently seem opposed to wearing anything at all – but such is the generosity of the beefcake. We caught up with Petra Mason to find out more about her love of the extreme male physique.
Why are you so drawn to vintage photography?
Petra Mason: Besides the fragile beauty of actual film and it's eerie, ghostlike quality, I've spent my entire life romanticising other eras; particularly stylish ones like the late 1920s or the 1940s, enjoying the kitsch and colours of the 1950s, the lines and shapes and make up and hair do's of the 1960s, the freedom of the 1970s. It's all downhill from there as far as I'm concerned. Then again, perhaps I would have loved to have been one of those incredible botanist photographer women during the age of enlightenment.
How do you turn a collection of images into a cohesive book? What’s your process?
Petra Mason: I get very into the research part, and the picture editing, to the point of obsession. With vintage photography the material comes in varying formats, prints, slides, reproductions and negatives, so it's not nearly as problem free as say, dealing with hi-resolution digital files. Each vintage collection I worked with had its own set of joys and drawbacks. I never settle for inferior content “to fill pages” so it always takes on epic proportions, burning the midnight oil, gnashing of teeth, tears, fury, doubt and then the torture of having to present it to the public and promoting it like a woman possessed. Old school cut ‘n paste plays an important role in the image flow and storyboards for the layouts: once the original images were scanned we made contact sheets, then I printed them out. Picture editing was an intense process that took several months. Once the final selection was made, and I got rights clearance, we used the old glue and scissors method to decide the flow, and arrange the images thematically
Why did you decide on ‘Beefcakes’ as a theme?
Petra Mason: While exploring the archive for Bunny Yeager's Darkroom I came across some beefcake shots of Bunny's that she'd taken in Florida of a hunky lifeguard doing handstands and acrobatic poses on the beach. I decided to include them not just because they were great images, but to show that beefcake shared the same space as cheesecake in the story of this kind of photography. Then I curated a small beefcake exhibit, and realized the scope of the genre, and the variety, realizing it's not just camp, and not just for the boys, when I fell for some of the images, particularly those from Kris Studios in Chicago. The first collection formed the original presentation to the publisher, but the end book was far from it and included a range of collectors and individual photographers images.
“The body has been a muse for artists and photographers forever, and I think its important for women to be more a part of the process” – Petra Mason
Many of the books you have published explore the body and celebrate nudity and eroticism. What is it about the body that continuously inspires you?
Petra Mason: The body is capable of conveying delight, pathos and the sublime, and is not intrinsically indecent, which is how the Internet and the media present it. Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form published in 1959 is still relevant today with its lucid prose and eloquent arguments. The body has been a muse for artists and photographers forever, and I think its important for women to be more a part of the process of celebrating nudity and eroticism which has become a bit of a boy's own playground. These vintage images of men celebrate a time when over-grooming was not neutering a generation of men as it is now, with their over-plucked eyebrows, glow in the dark bleached teeth and faked up tans and hairless-ness. It’s clear that you have a passion for glamorous retro style, as seen in Bettie Page: Queen of Curves and Bunny Yeager's Darkroom. Is there an allure in those women of the past that might be lost in our current generation? Much of what passes for glamour in our current generation is so far off the mark, and the far inferior quest for “hotness” seems to have eclipsed glamour. I do think though that by championing glamorous retro style as I, and the many who do so including with the whole female driven burlesque scene, we're chipping away at the mainstream and offering an alternative. Dita Von Teese (who wrote the foreword for Bunny Yeager's Darkroom) has been a huge inspiration in that regard, showing us that a brunette porcelain beauty without a tan can be a superstar.
How do you feel the legacy of pin-up culture continues to live on today?
Petra Mason: Pin-up remains timelessly cool even though it has recently been re-interpreted by Katy Perry, Madonna and Beyoncé, and Amy Winehouse in her way. It'll never really be mainstream again, and remains eternally edgy and glamorous, multicultural and body shape inclusive.
Beefcake: 100% Rare, All-Natural was a dramatic shift from one gender to the next. Is it important for you to capture both sexes and have them explored through your books?
Petra Mason: We're making history, baby! Beefcake has to be the only book to explore the genre through the eyes of an all woman team who put this book together, using all male collections. The fact that the fabulous DJ Drag and Founder of Wigstock, Lady Bunny wrote the Foreword is certainly historic, she also is allowed to say all sorts of outrageous stuff no one else would ever get away with. As a heterosexual woman I realized I could share the same gaze as man, gay or straight. I think its true that we can all appreciate physical beauty in men, even as heterosexual men. But what I discovered is that its almost painful for some hetero men to view the beefcake material, whereas with pin-up and burlesque, a lot of straight woman are into it in, some find it a real turn on and others enjoy the playful glamour and athleticism. We're a very layered lot, both men and women. But overall I find men are more forgiving in their gaze, surprisingly its the women who are often more superficial.
What other subjects would you like to explore? Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
For Skira/Rizzoli, I am finishing up an art book that's out Fall 2015 titled Carlos Betancourt: Imperfect Utopia.
Beefcake: 100% Rare All Natural by Petra Mason is published by Rizzoli and available now