The amazing thing about the photographs in this book is how ordinary they are. And it has been mostly ordinary people who have posed naked before the lens since the introduction of photography in 1839. Until recent times, such private revelations had to be cloaked in secrecy. One could be sent to jail or run out of town otherwise. Yet the temptation to bare it all for immortality has persisted.

The history of photography is mainly about the documentation of everyday objects—rocks on the beach and flowers in a vase (which artists like Edward Weston and Robert Mapplethorpe took to sublime form)—and, of course, the human body. The masters of that subject are too numerous to list here. Suffice to say the anonymous maker of these images would not be counted among them. They are adequate pictures, meant to record a moment and perhaps to arouse the viewer, but nothing more. Yet given the context in which they were taken—and then much later found—they are indeed special.

The male nude has always suffered in comparison with its female counterpart. The latter could be passed off as “art” or a guilty pleasure, while similar photographic studies of men were far more shrouded and prone to suspect. When these images were sold, they were distributed as health guides, artist’s references, or bodybuilding models. Because of the postal laws, even the finest photographers faced imprisonment for producing frontal pictures of naked men. The male nudes in this book appear to be post-Second World War servicemen. Whether they are lovers, shipmates, or just simply guys on the loose, we will never know. The poses range from coy and earnest to all-out ballsy, but there is a kind of innocence seen throughout that is hard to find in today’s primped and pumped naked poseurs. While the word shy hardly comes to mind, there is a certain sweetness in their flagrant posing.

They are ordinary men in simple settings, photographed without artistic intent. (In photography, the term “vernacular” literally means “of the commonplace,” which certainly applies here.) The negatives were found in a box under a bed in the mid-Eighties after the original owner, and maybe photographer, had deceased. Although most likely never intended for public display, these images offer a unique voyeuristic snapshot of intimate moments caught long ago. They shed new light on one of the most prolific and eccentric artists of photography’s fascinating past: “Unknown.”

-- Mark Thompson from the Introduction to the exhibition catalog
Exhibition catalog available for purchase here


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