Currently one of the most famous photographers of the male nude, American Tom Bianchi visited London recently. David McGillivray met him and his new British partner Ben Smales…
His books are always prominent in gay shops. Most are shrink-wrapped. But there are usually some well-thumbed display copies. Few of us can resist flicking through a book of Tom Bianchi nudes.
Plenty of us buy one as well. His first book, Out of the Studio (1990), sold 57,000 copies in two years. Not bad for an expensive coffee table book. But Tom Bianchi men catch the eye by being beautiful and beautifully shot, whether in classic poses or apparently intimate embraces. Increasingly, however, the photographer has been putting himself in the picture.
There’s Tom in the mirror. That’s Tom’s hand pulling down the model’s trunks. And, yes, there’s Tom having sex with the model. Except that it isn’t a model in the modern sense. Tom’s subjects are his friends. Or, to quote the title of Tom’s 1993 book, Extraordinary Friends. When it comes to the world of Tom Bianchi, there’s more going on behind the camera than in front of it. That’s probably true of most photographers.
Except that Tom is full of surprises. One that nobody’s been able to reveal before now is the identity of his secret boyfriend. Ben Smales will crop up throughout this story. For a start he’s one of the reasons Tom is in London.
Tom’s made enough money from his art to afford a house in Palm Springs and, for a few weeks, a penthouse in London with panoramic views of most of its best-known landmarks. I recognise the interior as soon as I walk in because Tom’s been shooting his friends here. The pictures are on his website.
Tom is a Tom Bianchi man himself. He’s always worked out and he entered his first bodybuilding contest when he was 60. He still looks 60 but he’s actually 67. By accident more than design we talk on the couch. On the Couch (1 and 2) are the titles of Tom’s most famous books in the UK. While we’re talking, Ben takes photos. But not the sort of photos that will turn up in On the Couch 3.
Because Tom has lived several lives in one lifetime and has documented them in 19 books to date with more to come, I suggest limiting our conversation to men. Men I’ve Loved (1999) is the title of another book. But Tom knows so much about so much (later I spend forever on Wikipedia checking the spelling of dozens of names and technical terms) that I let him wander all over the place.
His sex life encompasses the innocence of the 1950s, when he and his male lovers didn’t know what homosexuality was, through the madness of the pre-AIDS era, to 21st century digital porn. I can’t always tell the difference between Tom’s art and Tom’s porn, and we have a good argument about definitions. And – his choice, not mine – we talk about AIDS and of course we have to because the disease changed the course of Tom’s life.
Tom Bianchi in a nutshell is an artist whose career has taken off in different directions according to what he thinks is his destiny. “David, I’m not a fatalist”, he insists, “but I believe in Einstein’s observation that there are no accidents in the universe. Everything has a purpose to it. My own spiritual beliefs are rather complex but I’m aware of the fact that so many times in my life things have happened that have been invitations to either accept or reject.
And if they got me in the groin I always accepted.” Tom’s classic studies are works of art in the tradition of masters such as George Hoyningen-Huene, George Platt Lynes and Herb Ritts, although Tom doesn’t like Ritts (“I saw a kind of buried homophobia in his work.”) His more informal pic tures, the stuff he’s best known for, developed as a result of snapping his friends on Fire Island, the gay holiday resort in New York, in the 1970s.
(The Polaroids from this period comprise a substantial historical record, soon to be the subject of another book). At the moment there are around 21,000 generally more explicit images on his website. Some of this stuff is in my view indistinguishable from the work of whoever’s snapping rent boys in Prague this week. It’s horny but only sometimes distinctive.
Tom disagrees with my view and he’s got a lifetime’s study of art history to prove that he’s right. “The reason we can’t call it porn is this”, he states. “Pornography comes from the Greek and it means the writing of prostitutes so literally it’s not that. Porn is a pejorative term which is fraught with all sorts of negative connotations.” So is the only difference between Tom’s work and porn the fact that money doesn’t change hands? “No, there’s also a difference in intent and consciousness. My intention is not to use someone; my intention is to celebrate someone and to give them a safe place to celebrate their sexual energy. Now that doesn’t mean I haven’t photographed men who’ve been in the porn business. But the thing that I love about this is that when you see them in my images they look like different people. This is probably egoistic but it’s a matter of intelligence.”
Tom’s claim is that he loves all the men he photographs. “Loving someone in this process doesn’t mean you want to marry them or you’re going to open your checking account or anything else”, he clarifies. “It just means that the process is going to be one of respect and one in which you’re trying to demonstrate your appreciation for a fellow human being.” Does he photograph men he desires? “Oftentimes. If you use your camera to try to seduce somebody, word’ll be around like that. So I made it a point not photographing people if I hadn’t had a prior intimate relationship with them. [Nowadays] there are people who may not be my type, and I don’t have sex with everybody for sure. But there’s something about them that I would find attractive.”
Tom was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and raised by his grandmother who, he says, gave him the unconditional love he’s since passed to others. At high school he fell in love with Bob, co-captain of the football team and the kind of jock to whom Tom would be attracted for the rest of his life. “We had an adolescent affair for a number of years, which was fully sexual, until he decided we were too old for that and he told a girlfriend of mine, who later became a girlfriend of his, that he couldn’t see me any more because I was a queer.” Years later Tom met his ex-girlfriend again and she told him, “I always knew we were both dating Bob. I also knew that I wasn’t putting out and you were.”
Tom’s next big affair was with Doug, his law school room-mate (“gymnast’s body, very nicely formed”). They had “wild sex” together for a year, not knowing they were gay or that there were others like them. “We thought, OK, this is cool, we’re both straight guys, we’re planning on getting married. We talked about being law partners, having our own practice, which would allow us a reason to be together away from our wives.”
Tom and Doug were blissfully ignorant that they were living in what was developing into Chicago’s Boystown. “Sometimes, coming home on Saturday nights, we’d see groups of men standing on street corners and I always assumed they were waiting for buses.” The penny dropped when a bevy of queens began partying in drag in the house next door.
Then the owner invited the law students round to watch a porn movie. Later Tom confronted him. “I told him, ‘I think we’re gay, but we don’t know anything about this.’ He said, ‘Well, where do you go on weekends? What bars do you go to?’ And I said, ‘Well, we don’t.’ He said, ‘Well, if you’d like to come by this Saturday night, a bunch of guys will be here. We’ll take you out and show you around. And that’s how I came out.” It was 1967.
At one bar he was sort of picked up by a successful new playwright named Edward Albee. “He had amazing eyelashes. He was very preppy, a very handsome young man, although really he was an older man to me because I was 22, he was 37.” Albee taught Tom a lot about art. While Tom Bianchi was in New York he was invited by a friend to Fire Island. “It was beyond breathtaking. We were houseguests of a couple and, when we arrived at their house, they were both naked and they were both bodybuilders and it was like I had just gone through the low door in the wall and it was Wonderland. It was so unbelievably sexy and beautiful.”
While working as a lawyer for Columbia Pictures, Tom began taking Polaroids on Fire Island. “I could go to a party and take pictures and I could toss ‘em on the table and people would take a look at them and they could see they weren’t a threat because it wasn’t about identity. They had an aesthetic to them, they were descriptions of an experience and they were beautiful.” One day Tom threw in his Columbia job and became an artist and sculptor, a very successful one financially (he got commissions from Bank of America, IBM and Saks 5th Avenue) and artistically (he had his first major museum retrospective in 1984). Tom and the love of his life moved from New York to California.
“Artists who knew him will tell you to this day that David Peterson was considered the most gorgeous man in all of New York. He was a model, he became the Speedo boy, he was shot by all the famous photographers, his first lover was Bill Barnes who was Tennessee Williams’ agent. David was at the epicentre of all of that.” As he talks, Tom finds it difficult to re-live David’s death from AIDS in 1988. “I went to his hospital room with the picture that I had of him taken out at Fire Island and I said, ‘This goes on the wall! I don’t want anyone walking in here who doesn’t know who you were. Because it’s still you…’” Tom can’t go on for a moment. Ben puts down his camera and comes over to comfort him. I feel I really shouldn’t be here. But the bond between the two men seems very sincere and it’s very touching.
After David’s death, Tom Bianchi tested positive for HIV. “I couldn’t be tested during David’s life”, Tom tells me. “It would have been too hard on him because we were in a monogamous relationship. David would know he was the route of transmission.” The trauma of losing David made Tom take stock of his life again. “I decided I’m either going to die myself now or I find a way of living and I have to find a way of letting the world know who we were.
So I got a group of my friends together and we shot the photographs that became the first chapter of Out of the Studio. So the book was made to give us a glimmer of hope in the darkest days of AIDS.” Tom feels that his life philosophy led him to cross paths with a UCLA scientist who wanted to conduct an experiment using monoclonal antibodies to treat HIV. “I said yes”, says Tom, “and I was as a result of that the first human being in whom they were able to reverse lymphocytopaenia.” (This controversial therapy has not been approved by the FDA, America’s public health department).
Tom Bianchi proudly justifies one of his newer projects, the website on which, for a fee, you can see photos and videos in which Tom and others, one of whom is Ben, “interact” with the talent. “The most important thing to understand about the website, the thing which makes it pretty much different from anything else you see out there, is that it’s a document, the most comprehensive document of its kind on the planet, a diary, and the most intimate autobiography, told in the form of pictures.
It’s a document about my interaction with friends, former lovers, and people who fly through our orbit for a moment. I don’t think I appeared clearly in any of my books until about number 5 or 6. Part of it was my own self esteem issue. I’m not as good looking as the people I shoot. But then you get to a point when this most wonderful young man comes into your life. He looks at pictures of me 30 or 40 years ago and says, ‘I certainly wouldn’t have been as attracted to you then as I am now.’”
Ben is 38, he comes from Leeds, he was married, and he came out two years ago. He and Tom met online. Ben, who has a background in management, says he didn’t know who Tom Bianchi was. There was a bit of Skype sex (some of it’s on the website) and then they met in Palm Springs. “There have been a few times in my life”, says Tom, “where the magnetism is such that it’s like… [he smacks his fist into his other hand]…oh my God.” This was one of those times? “Absolutely. Off the charts.” Ben told his parents that he was gay and that he was coming back to England with his lover.
Their current trip to London was made to sort out a long-term American visa for Ben. It’s been authorised. But until now they’ve kept their relationship secret in case it prejudiced the outcome. The partners are creating new works together and not just on the couch. They’ve begun developing one of Ben’s ideas in which photos of real men are superimposed over sculpted figures. Watch out Gilbert & George. Here come Tom & Ben. The Tom Bianchi story continues.