Over the past decades there has been a steady interest in the so-called physique photography, the erotic images for gay men in the fifties and sixties. These photos could be ordered printed and delivered by mail, but they were also published in specialized magazines. These magazines didn’t publish anything obviously homosexual, but “each issue was so clearly designed by and for gay men it was obvious to even the youngest and most inexperienced of them,” observes F. Valentine Hooven in “Beefcake: The Muscle Magazines of America 1950-1970” (Cologne 1995).
The nostalgic appreciation started at a moment when the heyday of physique photography was hardly over with the publication in 1982 of the photo book “Physique: A Pictorial History of Athletic Model Guild,” assembled by Winston Leyland and published by his Gay Sunshine Press. The American High Court had ruled in 1962 that not necessarily every image of a naked man is obscene, which caused a few magazines to cautiously take up a few full frontal male nudes. In 1967, after another few legal battles the High Court ruled these images of male genitalia legal too. Two years later a new generation of gays manifested itself noisily and social acceptance of homosexuality increased, and from then on the flood of erotica could not be stopped, it was the start of the ultimately explicit porn production. Bob Mizer, the man behind the Athletic Model Guild, however, published the last issue of his magazine “Physique Pictorial” in 1990, two years before his death.
Many people still appreciate the period when not all sexual activities from blow-jobs to fistfucking were shown in close up and full color, when things were left for the imagination. And so the development of porn went hand in hand with the publication of several monographs on physique photographers. Janssen Verlag for example published the series “American Photography of the Male Nude 1940-70,” luxurious paperbacks on a large format with the work of physique photographers such as Mizer, Bruce of Los Angeles, Lon of New York, Al Urban and Dave Martin. The titles and the names of some photographers might suggest that the physique photography was an all American affair. However, in Europe too, men were being photographed in erotic poses and situations.
By Tom Nicholl of Scott Studios for example, who was one of the most popular photographers in London. Nicholl had started very early - before the 1950s - with photographing men in motorcycle outfits, with or without a motorcycle. It is indeed probable, as Hooven claims, “that his photographs [...] had a hand in the development of the look and the attitude.” These Europeans have received much less attention up until now, which is unjustified. Thomas Waugh’s thorough study “Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall” (New York 1996) only devotes a reference to another British studio in a photo caption: “London’s fetish-flavored Royale Studio was among the purveyors of photo-strip narratives near the start of the movie period, c. late 1950s.” (With “movie period” Waugh means the specialized movies on the male physique).
Royale still hasn’t a monograph of its own, but on the Internet photos of this studio pop up more and more often. Especially on fetish blogs such as Mitchmen, Jockspank and Sailor Uniform. Royale was specialized in photos of men in uniform, and of corporal punishment, often both. Up until now I’ve only found one somewhat more comprehensive article on Royale: “Studio Royale Photography, London and Guys in Uniform Magazine: English erotic male physique photography pioneer specializing in military and naval discipline” by Squaddie John (www.milism.net/royale.htm).
Larry Townsend stated in “The Leatherman’s Handbook II” (New York 1983) that men receive their punishment standing upright and that boys are bend over. He then refers to a source that he couldn’t trace anymore, claiming that in British prisons back flogging was replaced by buttock spanking because the latter could not be shown off as proud injuries since in this way inmates were humiliated by being treated like boys.
Townsend’s remarks refer to a past when corporal punishment was still normal procedure. Nowadays in fetish context, people spank each other’s buttocks because there’s no chance of real harm. Even when punished with a cane or a belt a butt might show up red marks, but permanent injuries are rare. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this un-erotic, “medical” background, the difference in punishing men and boys that Townsend noted, got eroticized. If you watch (stills from) recent corporal punishment movies you will see that the guy being punished is usually quite a bit younger than the one dealing out the blows and that the situation is such that this makes sense. Like a teacher disciplining a student or a father teaching his son a lesson after catching him jerk off to a sex rag, or an officer bullying a cadet into submission. (There’s even a specialized website on Spanking Army Boys.) In an interview on Jockspank with “Bad Boy” Brett Stevens, who admits to have been corporally punished on film hundreds of times, the interviewer notes that he enjoys it so much when Brett is spanked over the knee, because “it reduces a strapping young lad to the status of a naughty boy.”
In Royale’s output corporal punishment is also mainly exercised on the buttocks, in a bent over position, although there are exceptions. It’s remarkable however, that both persons seem to be of equal age. Mitchell concludes on his blog Mitchmen that Royale’s models are not presented “as beefcake or highly polished seducers, but as ordinary guys with natural looking, sexy bodies.”
Royale was active in the fifties, sixties and seventies, and was located in Victoria, London. Although Mitchell calls the models “natural,” they all had attractive, athletic, muscular bodies and the guys receiving punishments had nice round butts, which were often accentuated by ultra tight fitting shorts. Squaddie John notes that these “khaki drill shorts and tight cotton white shorts [are] so tight they were probably specifically tailored.”
In this Royale follows suit of a trademark of colleague Tom Nicholl of Scott Studios, who was famous for the shorts he had his models put on. As F. Valentine Hooven stated: “Although the pair of shorts were far too small for anyone his models managed to get into them and his customers seemed to like the resulting photos.” In “Beefcake” Hooven reproduced a Scott Studio photo of a stern looking Dave West in tight black leather shorts, while on other photos the models are wearing white shorts that leave less room for the imagination than the “posing straps” of their American colleagues.
Apart from the “punishment shorts” Royale’s models wear the army battledress uniforms of the era or naval duck whites in other photographs. These uniforms were completed with matching shoes: “The KD shorts were worn with ammo boots and puttees, the gym shorts with plimsoles, the ubiquitous gym footwear that could also land across the buttocks with a nasty sting. Primordial training shoes and cross-country running shoes feature in later sets,” according to Squaddie John, who also discovered some regimental tattoos on a few models. This shows that some models were indeed enlisted in the army. This would be less surprising than you’d expect. Both in Europe and the USA there’s a long tradition of underpaid soldiers and sailors, who didn’t shy away from making an extra buck for sexual services. Posing for a photographer would be easy, especially as Royale’s photos weren’t explicitly homosexual or even sexual but rather disciplinary, although the consumers would beg to differ, I’m sure.
Some later work shows naked buttocks, but it’s not known whether the photographer would have preferred capturing bare butts more often and the models wouldn’t comply, or that he was aware of the strong fetish quality of guys wearing tight shorts. Squaddie John thinks that he can make out real spanking marks on some of the “nude” photos. The quality of the scans that I’ve seen are not such that I can make out whether this is true or that his imagination is getting the better of him, or that he’s being manipulated. Fans of corporal punishment think traces of a spanking or flogging, by hand or cane, are particularly hot and producers are aware of that of course. In an interview with the authors of “Different Loving: An Exploration of the World of Sexual Dominance and Submission” (New York 1993) fetish porn actress Kiri Kelly told that when she was shooting her first spanking photos, the photographer said: “We’ll use rouge. This is just stills. You don’t have to do anything.” To which she replied: “‘What? You’re going to take my fun away from me?’ And the guy said, ‘Oh! Sure! Go for it, if you want!’ And so we did, and I got very red.” Brett Stevens, who for one of his first movies for Sting Pictures “took a caning, then a hand spanking on a recently caned bare bottom and later in the same movie [was] bent over the gym horse for a very realistic, and obviously painful, bare bottom birching,” said in the interview on Jockspank: “My marks go straight away within hours, unless I take a real hard caning then they may last a day or two. Sting used to get annoyed as my marks would go so quickly when they wanted to take photos afterwards.”
In 1967 homosexual acts were decriminalized in Great Britain but this didn’t include the army. When the military authorities found out about Royale’s activities some models were punished with a dishonorable discharge from the army, which sometimes even resulted in a criminal record. The police raided Royale several times, and each time a lot of original work got lost. Because of these ongoing legal problems, but also perhaps because of a changing trend in consumer fantasies Studio Royale folded at some point. How fortunate that its heritage will not disappear because of some spirited fans on the Internet. Aside from the intrinsic appeal the separate photos have, Royale was a pioneer when it came to the erotic (wordless) photo story, a predecessor to porn movies. A lot of Royale’s photos were created as part of a “story” consisting of fifteen or more images. Waugh reproduced one of these “stories” in “Hard to Imagine” but because all twenty-one photos were put on one single page the erotic quality was lost. The only story that’s sort of complete I’ve spotted on the Internet can be found on Sailor Uniform (http://sailoruniform.blogspot.nl/2011/03/back-in-time.html). But this is not really representative of Royale’s work, because the story is about bondage and not corporal punishment. The protagonists are three sailors in very tight-fitting uniforms. One of the guys is captured by the two others because he’s been a bully. They tie him to a tree in the forest, throw water over him and humiliate him by stripping him naked. These two avenger angels then leave him in the forest for others to find.
It’s time some courageous publisher dares to publish a photo book on Royale so that the stories and the singular photo get the attention they deserve. Until then the fans will have to make do with the photos popping up in blogosphere.