Tuesday, July 17, 2012

John S Barrington

John S Barrington: A Photographing Gentleman Amongst Street Lads

By Hans Hafkamp

Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, three rather randomly picked photographers of erotic male nudes who have acquired a position in modern art museums. John S. Barrington, one of the pioneers of physique photography was there to witness them make it that far, while he never did. After visiting an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work in the ICA in London he wrote in his diary: “Excellent – but I’m so much better – frustration.” That frustration must have soared when both the Photographer’s Gallery as well as the ICA deemed his work not suitable for a retrospective. That rejection came on top of the disappointment Barrington felt over the fact he had to make his money with male erotic photography while he was convinced he was destined for much more artistic activities. An objective viewer will see immediately that Barrington’s work cannot be compared to the photographers mentioned above. Still, his work is most certainly not without value; the photos offer an overview of the homoerotic subculture from just before the Second World War until well into the eighties. Barrington’s life itself offers an even clearer insight into this subculture. Rupert Smith wrote Barrington’s biography some fifteen years ago, making use of the diaries Barrington kept his whole life, as well as his various attempts to write an autobiography, which became his major preoccupation during his final years. In 1990 an exclusive paperback was published with a selection of Barrington’s work; the publication saw a second edition in 1993. Although Barrington is mentioned in a few retrospectives on the history of male nude photography, his name and fame is fading again after the short-lived flare-up in the nineties. Even in the blogosphere his work seems under-represented compared to his American colleagues. This is strange because Emmanuel Cooper stated in Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography (London 1995) that when Barrington published his book The Romantic Male Nude in 1984, he had “photographed more exceptional models and published more explicitly nude titles than anyone else in Europe or the USA.” So it’s time to get re-acquainted with a forgotten pioneer.

‘I Am A Camera’

Barrington was born on the 2nd of November 1920 as the illegitimate child of Grace Pigott. His mother was in a relationship with the Austrian nobleman Franz Engeljähringer, but she knew the child was not his. Still, the Austrian married her and accepted the boy as his son. At school John had much more trouble getting accepted. He was considered a pansy, who wouldn’t stand up for himself. He didn’t do very well at school except for the artistic subjects. One of the teachers recommended that he’d go to the St. Martin’s School of Art, where he was accepted.

At fourteen John fell in love with a student who was a little older: Jim Trotter, an athlete and the local Don Juan. Because John had a quick wit he could assist Jim picking up girls and they also held joint jerk-off sessions. When John told Jim he was going to study at West End, Jim responded saying he’d be a totally different person soon. He was completely right of course. Shortly after the start of his study John transformed into an eccentric individual, with long hair, strange clothes, carrying a cane and using a lorgnette. His new look came with a new name too, one he’d use for the rest of his life: John Shreeve Barrington. Around this time he also discovered the camera, something that would put money into his pocket and guys into his bed for the rest of his life as well.

His first models he photographed in 1938 at the male swimming pool in Hampstead Heath. This is also where he met his first steady model, the sixteen-year old David Dulak, whom he got to take off his clothes in front of the camera soon too.

The first months of 1938 John spent in Paris, where he frequented artistic circles during the day and the brothels, bars and clubs at night. He finished his time in France with a visit to Cannes, where he had his first real sexual experience with another man. The eighteen-year old Francisco taught him the pleasures of uninhibited homosexual behavior. They did, according to Barrington’s diary, everything men could do together, except fucking.

Looking for ‘Trade’

John emphasized that Francisco was a healthy heterosexual guy, who just happened to really enjoy the pleasure of having sex with other men. He should definitely not be viewed as a homosexual. Although Barrington enjoyed unbridled sex with other men he didn’t view himself as a homosexual either. Right up till the end he said he hated queens while he was a flaming faggot himself. His repulsion could have something to do with his relationship with Roy Peter Wilson, whom he met shortly after the Second World War in London’s nightlife. Wilson was nineteen at the time and well connected in the largely hidden gay nightlife in the city, to which he introduced John. Although their sexual relationship was brief, it was with Roy that John had his first anal sex, as a top. Many of the bars they frequented were not gay establishments as we know them today. Screaming queens didn’t get in but they were perfect spots to meet up with soldiers, sailors and other lads that could perhaps be persuaded with a little cash. After a while John discovered in the wartime nightlife that it was even easier to pick up his favorite uniformed boys in the bars they frequented to pick up girls. He managed to keep up this hectic sexual lifestyle by using Benzedrine, which he put in his coffee.

After the war the unbridled sexual atmosphere John enjoyed so much was to change rapidly. In 1948 he was confronted with the real negative consequences of his sexual preferences for the first time when he was beaten up by two soldiers. In his diary he describes how he took two sailors home to his apartment on the 1st of April. He photographed them first and had sex with them subsequently. Later that night he was stopped by two guard soldiers who told him they wouldn’t mind if he bought them a drink. Barrington had to decline but told them he was going to be at the Brasserie Universal later that night. In the end he took them home and was found the next morning, unconscious in a puddle of coffee. His house had been messed up and he had to spend ten days in hospital to recover from a concussion.

In Conflict With the Law

During the war Barrington was not only hunting for sex, in the daytime he made a living as a theater agent and was involved in some dubious cosmetics business. Wartime made cheating easy, when it came to paying tax for example. After the war however, the black market was targeted immediately. In January 1945 already, the cosmetics company was audited by the tax authority and Barrington was sentenced soon later to twelve months for fraud. In jail he learned that the tax authority fined him a huge amount of money. After he got out of jail he managed to avoid bankruptcy by striking a deal with the tax office. He threw himself at several projects that were to bring in money. He initiated theater productions, presented his own plays and tried to find a publisher for his novel Out of Sickness, which he would publish using the author’s name John Paignton.

Photographs for Sale

Almost by accident Barrington discovered a lucrative way of making money. Over the previous ten years he had acquired a considerable collection of photographs of male nudes and he decided to make money with it. Before the war already an underground circuit existed where photos of 'athletic male nudes' were traded as study material for artists. When he tried to place an ad in the magazine Health and Strength with such a description however, it was refused. The magazine did buy thirty of his photos though. He found collectors through window notices at kiosks and assembled enough contacts to secure an income for the rest of his life. One of the men he met this way was Nigel Westfield, a wealthy collector who’d selected a future as photographer and publisher for himself. Barrington had finally found his benefactor. Westfield was willing to produce Barrington’s play Horror! and publish his novel Out of Sickness. In exchange Barrington taught Westfield all he knew about photography and how to meet models. After a few months already Westfield turns this last skill into a potential danger, bringing very young boys to the studio. “Have to warn him strongly about boys under 18,” Barrington jotted down in his diary. Something he didn’t stick to either when he liked certain lads. He regularly had models of about sixteen-years old in front of his camera. His preference, however, was, in Emmanuel Cooper’s words, for photographing “athletes and body builders [...] before they became popular, mostly out of doors, avoiding stylisation or classical associations.”

It wasn’t because of the young boys that Barrington got in trouble with the vice squad. In October 1949 he was arrested by two undercover officers who charged him with harassing men in a public urinal. On New Year’s Eve he was sentenced to seven days in jail awaiting a psychiatric report. He was confused because he had never used urinals for his sexual adventures. On the 6th of January he was in court again: he was fined and released.

A Great Love

He immediately started a new project, the photo book Art and Anatomy. Now that his life seemed back in order he finally left his parents’ house and found his own place. He also wanted to find his Great Love. His diary regularly shows heated entries like “TERRY, I could fall!” or “Who am I in love with today? ERIC!!!” His quest was destined to fail for the men he liked, the “normal, healthy” straight guys, weren’t interested in him. Yet, in March 1952 he appeared to have a stroke of luck when a handsome soldier smiled at him. Barrington handed him his card and a few days later the man, who was called Peter, rang. Peter surprised the photographer at their first meeting by undressing and posing naked without embarrassment. He knew exactly what he was doing: he promised to come back but demanded the relationship would remain non-sexual. Barrington agreed of course, but was lost in love with the paratrooper from day one. He sent him letters and photographed him, drew him, even wrote a novel about him, “Dear Peter...” In the book their affair is a little more romantic than in reality. In order to release the erotic tension as the relationship with Peter never turned sexual, Barrington threw himself into promiscuity again. Now that he was past thirty he started to worry about ending up as a lonely queen, who’d have to start paying for his sex partners, even though he kept calling them “models.” Barrington took another decision that would turn his life in a totally different direction. Peter had confessed to him that the erotic friendship they had confused him and depressed him. To counter this he slept with as many girls as he could. Hoping to salvage their friendship Barrington decided to start behaving like a straight person and started a relationship with one of Peter’s ex-girlfriends. In October 1955 he even married her (and stayed married for thirty-five years) and sired two daughters with her. Marriage brought him the homely security he craved for but it didn’t secure his friendship with Peter. They lost touch after he married Anne. 

In Court Again

Barrington’s married life had a somewhat unfortunate start. A good week after the ceremony he was arrested and charged with sending obscene material over the mail. This was not the first time he had to defend himself against this accusation. In 1952 he was already arrested on the same charge. Because he had not been convicted at the time he thought he could get away with it. But the authorities kept an eye on him and saw their chance when they found photos of Barrington with the drawn-on briefs scratched off when they arrested a man they suspected had a relationship with an underage boy.

In the fifties photographers were used to photograph the models naked and then had underwear drawn in with a pencil to meet the law requirements. The pencil drawn posing straps could be rubbed out of course. On the 13th of December 1955 Barrington was found guilty and sentenced to three months in jail and a fine of 250 pounds. Right after new year he was convicted. This experience made him a lot more careful and from then on he did his business more secretly. In 1962 however, his apartment was raided and a large number of photographs confiscated. This time the justice system was inscrutably in his favor and gave him just a tiny fine.

Publisher and Escort Agent

The fact that all this material was found in his house seven years after he got married shows that not everything had changed radically in his life, although it was probably not his choice. All kinds of efforts to provide for his family in more regular ways failed miserably. Again and again it turned out that erotic photography was the only way he could make enough money.

In 1954 he was involved with the publication of Male Model Monthly. Four years prior Bob Mizer’s first Physique Pictorial had seen the light in the United States, which is the best known amongst these magazines. Physique Pictorial, and also Male Model Monthly, posed as magazines for body builders and admirers of the male body in general; there was nothing obviously gay in there. However, anyone looking a bit more closely would soon realize the real nature of the magazine.

The rest of his life Barrington would supply photos to the physique magazines. He also published a number of his own titles, such as MAN-ifique, which was a little less discrete than Male Model Monthly. In 1956 a new photo book was also published, Youth in the Sun, with over a hundred photos Barrington shot in Cannes. He went to Cannes in 1938 for the first time and had kept coming back regularly because he could photograph the Mediterranean types he preferred in the right setting. In 1958 he went to the south of France again, but since he now had a family to support he had to find extra ways of making money. One of his new activities was called The Gay Bachelor, a tourist service for rich Americans visiting Europe. As a travel agent he could freely use the services in hotels, bars and restaurants, while his American clients paid him, officially for a pleasant stay in Europe. The pleasures Barrington offered consisted of an introduction to the local nightlife and especially to the boys they had admires in his photos.

It’s possible that this is how Barrington got in touch with Don McIntyre, a Canadian collector of erotic gay material who assembled a collection from the fifties until the eighties; a collection that was saved by accident. “The prize of his hoard,” Thomas Waugh wrote in “Hard to Image: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall” (New York 1996), “is a large collection of black and white slides [...]. This unique treasure, dating from around 1960 to 1965, included many explicit graphics, but their principal component was risqué photographs by the British physique producer John Barrington. The slides show the stable of well-hung Riviera playboys and London waiters and students whom Barrington’s licit mags had modestly displayed in inked-in posing straps, but now caught in flagrantly illicit poses in the slides. This stunning collection included only a few actual penetration shots, but showed enough erections and hands-on action to have landed McIntyre in jail had he chanced on a Canadian customs officer in a thorough mood.”

Late Recognition

At the beginning of the sixties The Gay Bachelor had grown out to a successful business. The set-up was such that Barrington had to also continue his photographic search and this aspect overtime made him troubled. It was not because of the boys, but because it meant an existence at society’s fringe.

Things got extra difficult at the end of the sixties when the emerging gay press started to print the material Barrington had secretly been feeding for years. This new material looked much better than his own publications because he had never paid any attention to the presentation of his material. Slowly but surely his customers started to reject the flimsy material he wanted to sell to them for a lot of money. So in the seventies he threw all ethic and artistic standards overboard and tried to cash everything. He raped his own photo archive and published bad reproductions of Von Gloeden’s work, he pirated work by artists like George Quaintance and Tom of Finland. While Barrington was desperately milking his work, in the eighties a genuine interest in the physique photography started to develop in the United States. Barrington’s work was very much part of this. In 1987 he was invited to exhibit in New York and Barrington was delighted his work was finally getting some deserved critical acclaim. From 1989 his health was causing him more and more trouble and on the 28th of August 1991 he died from leukemia at the Charing Cross Hospital in London.


- Kouros: The Male Photography of John S Barrington, Introduced by Emmanuel Cooper. London: Éditions Aubrey Walter, 1990 (Second impression 1993)

- Rupert Smith, Physique: The Life of John S Barrington. London/New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997


Many thanks to Hans for this guest post on Front Free Endpaper of an article which first appeared in Gay News in the Netherlands, for which Hans is the editor. Most of Barrington's photos are more 'in your face' than those featured here and I have had to be selective to keep this blog as worksafe as possible (hat tip to We Had Faces Then and this album of scans). However, any google search will take you where you want to go although, as Hans remarks, even on the Internet Barrington is quite under represented. The scans of the rarer works edited and published by Barrington came from the Callum James Books Shortlist #7 when we had a series of his works for sale (now sold). Thanks again Hans!



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