Every Tuesday, I take MUNI to the Tenderloin and climb three flights of stairs to a small room with a light table, boxes of slides, archival pens, loupes, numerical stamps, and plastic sleeves. This is my volunteer archiving gig while I’m unemployed. I join the other archivists, grab a stack of negatives, take off the rubber band, spray canned air on the negatives, and transfer the information from the enclosed roll marker to the plastic sleeves. I then order the slides by frame number, rewriting the number on the slide holder so it’s easier to see. Often the frame numbers are marred by other information stamped on the holder, or simply mis-stamped. Once the sleeve is full, it goes into a binder. Rinse and repeat.
Sometimes, though, there are no frame numbers so it’s a more investigative process. I have to look at the lighting, the background, the camera axis, the state of of the model’s undress, and then reconstruct the sequence.
Yes, state of undress. You see, I’m volunteering at the Bob Mizer archive. Bob Mizer took thousands of photographs of men is various states of undress between the 1940s and the 1980s. He was even incarcerated for it. His early work was nominally “physique”, complete with posing straps, but as societal mores loosened and laws became less restrictive, actual nudity appeared. Though he never photographed men having sex, wrestling and boxing are frequent subjects.
Mizer is cited as an influence on David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Tom of Finland—it’s also easy to see how Pierre et Giles would be inspired by some of his more fantastical portraits. His work (including films reminiscent of the work of Jean Cocteau) has recently been getting exposure in galleries around the world and in a book published by Phaedon. And then there’s the foundation, where I have volunteered for the last couple of months.
“It’s really just beefcake photos?” Someone asked me when I told them where I was spending my Tuesdays.
“Yes,” I said. “Though he photographed women too. Just early on, and not that much.”
Most people that I know are somewhat amused or bewildered by this. My friends who dig “vernacular photography,” or just plain enjoy anything queer, are into it. If it seems odd to anyone, they’re probably not aware that I had an early job as an adult content specialist for a major search engine. That’s a subject for another time, but somehow porn follows me. I swear it’s not the other way around.
Here’s the thing: After I got laid off I knew I needed ways to organize my time. I also knew I would miss working on projects with other people. I wanted to stay in the world of photography. So, when I went on to volunteermatch.org and discovered a foundation was looking for volunteer archivists, I knew that was the gig for me. The what I would be archiving didn’t bother me. It’s like what I learned at that early job, after a while you don’t even see the bodies anymore.*
I am learning new things about archiving and about photography. We reconstruct rolls and not photo shoots, and Mizer would shoot with multiple cameras, often employing multiple sets with the same actor. Reconstructing a roll then is often an exercise in interpreting notations and looking at overlapping sequences outside of time.
What interests me is the process of going through the sum total of someone’s body of work, preserving it, and cataloging it, for people who might be interested. Because I’ve learned that archiving is important. One of the last interviews I did at Blurb was with Mac Malikowski, founder of MouthFeel magazine. He described his obsessive process of tracking down the biography of a long lost porn star and body builder. As someone who once talked to a police archivist in Cameron, Texas, to get background for a story I was trying to write based on a 1935 telegram I bought at a flea market, I understand how important archiving is. Having talked to dozens of living photographers about their archives, archiving is a subject near and dear to my heart—and professional interests.
So, as I pore over these slides, as I did today, and try to order the unnumbered images of one David Sloane, looking at body positioning, camera axis, lighting, and environmental queues to sequence them, that’s what I’m helping to build. These are stories. A story of a photographer, and stories of models—many of whom were hustlers, most of whom are forgotten to history. The sheets will be photographed and key-worded in a database. For someone, anyone, with interest in them.
* This is a bit of a lie. In truth you stop seeing them as sexual bodies. Again, an essay for another time. But I will say that I saw a lot of horrifying and misogynist stuff in those old days, making Mizer’s work refreshingly innocent by comparison.