Mike Arlen in conversation with Peter Paul Hartnett at Gay Photographers Network, London
Mike Arlen is one of the rare surviving giants of English gay history of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. His features were an essential part of gay men’s photo magazines, the sort that were sold in a plain brown envelope because it was impossible to show the cover in public for fear of outing or provoking a homophobic attack. Mike Arlen is not his real name, it turns out Mike’s freedom as a photographer was based on his wide experience as a journalist and photographer for popular magazines for the female audience: She, Woman’s Own etc. Mike told us stories of his meetings with Bassey, Bowie, Elvis and many more. He conformed to the conventions of the time by never mentioning anything contentious in his showbiz reporting, so Rock Hudson was never stated to be gay until the end.
Mike Arlen first took up a camera when a photographer failed to show up for a shoot associated with a showbiz interview. Mike’s photographs of men in swimwear sold readily. Very soon he was asked by a German magazine editor to contribute male nudes, which were far more widely published there than in the UK. It’s not clear when he started publishing under his name Mike Arlen but it was about when he started contributing to British magazines for gay men.
This led to Mike Arlen’s Guys, a series of fifteen glossy magazines each featuring a number of well-endowed models. Mike Arlen’s models always looked like “Real Men”; he found them in pubs, many of them popular with soldiers, and from distributing his contact cards in newsagent’s windows and supermarket notice boards. It worked like this: he met you in a pub, asked if you were interested in doing some test shots and gave you a card. Flattered, and maybe intrigued, you phoned the number on the card and came along for five test shots, which Mike did for free, important in the days when film and printing was expensive.
Mike varied his locations, but they always looked real, as did the guys. He did shoots in homes, on the tube and he hired a London bus for one photo story which included a sequence where the conductor is telling off guys dressed as schoolboys for writing graffiti on the bus panels in felt pen. Mike stressed that all of his models were over the age of 21 years without exceptions. There were several shoots on farms, including farm animals.
Mike Arlen’s Guys featured well-endowed men as the main attraction. It was never a fetish magazine but as well as documenting the rapidly evolving fashions of the times, it titillated with glimpses of the fetishes of the time: white PE kit, white shorts, white briefs, rugger jockstraps, jeans and military uniforms. Bikers, punks and skinheads were peripheral; he didn’t feature many tattoos either. Other magazines by other photographers had their own territory: muscle men in Zipper, young guys in Vulcan etc although contributions by Mike Arlen often appeared in those magazines too. It was a small market but there was nothing else to educate or satisfy gay men whose only other outlets were the very few gay pubs or illegal cottaging and dangerous outdoor cruising.
A comparison with Robert Mapplethorpe is instructive, especially as Mapplethorpe’s images are now exhibited and collected by the art establishment. One of his photographs is the cover photograph of this month’s Journal, the magazine of the RPS, the Royal Photographic Society.
Robert Mapplethorpe was in touch with the creative intelligentsia, including Andy Warhol; similarly, Mike Arlen, through his work for mainstream journalism, was in touch with the creative intelligentsia including Brian Epstein and Lionel Bart. Both photographers achieved perfectionism in their product but relied on technical advice and support from others. Having seen a selection of Mike Arlen’s contact sheets, it’s very clear that the limitations of the 6x6 roll format became a creative limitation: he made every exposure count and didn’t shoot like wildfire. The sheer volume of this work meant Mike Arlen was always seeking new situations, new props and some new poses. I’m sure he had a formula for his shoots, well all do: there are certain shots you must have and there is a formula for the lighting and the exposure. Film is far more expensive to retouch than digital; although Mike Arlen’s Guys was printed on glossy paper for its later editions, it clearly had a limited budget compared to glossy magazines like Playboy in the straight shop next door.
Equally, there’s a workflow driven by the legal framework and publishing considerations to make the main shoot on colour stock, including the shots that will possibly make a colour cover or centre spread; the shoot then moved on to black and white with a slightly less strict shooting budget.
It’s very clear that Mike Arlen’s photography should be viewed as a major contributor in the same genre as Robert Mapplethorpe’s or the many photographers who contributed to Physique Pictorial, which was sold in the US for much the same purpose as Mike Arlen’s Guys sold in the UK
However, Robert Mapplethorpe set out to create collectible art objects, at least for his later work. Mike Arlen seems very happy to have been rediscovered recently and for his work to be framed up and displayed as well as archived.
The continuing interest in Mike Arlen’s photographic legacy is not limited to his contribution to English gay development of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. The interest and the argument that his work should be considered as art, is the photographer’s creative response to the limitations of the equipment, the marketplace and the legal framework. These make the case most strongly that Mike Arlen’s work is Art. We should celebrate him and we should celebrate his photography, as well as Mike Arlen’s guys.