George Platt Lynes and his assistant in the studio

George Platt Lynes, Pioneer Photographer

A commemoration on his 100th birthday

by John S. Lloyd

A gay man in the early 21st century man has a difficult time connecting with the trepidation that a young dancer named Nick Magellanes felt as he walked into the studio of George Platt Lynes on Madison Avenue, NYC in 1938. Nick had to wonder why a painter named Pavel Tchelitchew stopped him on 3rd Avenue in Greenvich Village to entreat him to become a ballet dancer. After his dance career became a reality he was asked by Pavel and Lincoln Kirstein, founder of the New York City Ballet, to pose in the nude for a photographer named George Platt Lynes.

Nick and the many other young dancers and models quietly posed for Lynes in the 1930’s. Each had to wonder if they were jeopardizing their careers by posing nude. With professional skill and the engaging manner of one of the most vibrant photographers of the 20th century convinced them to shed their clothes and be photographed. Only a few wealthy patrons saw the photographs originally. The picture of Nick Magellanes was not seen publicly until after Lynes’ death in 1955.

Not so long ago pictures of nude men were not only frowned on but were considered illicit, licentious, and pornographic. George Platt Lynes was one of the earliest photographers to artistically take luscious pictures of men undressed. These men were dancers and friends. He used charm, compliments and humor to relax his models. The results were striking, sensuous, and even whimsical. His surrealistic creativity can best be seen in a series of photographs utilizing classical mythological themes.

George Platt Lynes was born in Englewood, NJ on April 7, 1907. Before his twentieth birthday he was invited to join two slightly older friends in Paris. The three young men became a gay ménage à trois. Lynes and his partners Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler were darlings of Gertrude Stein and were frequent guests at her salon where they were befriended by Somerset Maughan, E.M Forrester, Thornton Wilder and many other artists and writers. Glenway, Monroe and George traveled between the USA and France throughout the 1920’s. They were the darlings of the avant-garde affording them introductions to the many significant literary and artistic figures of the early 20th century.

The boys frequently traveled with attractive single young women like Barbara Harrison who was an expatiate with a home in Villefranche du Sloane, France. Barbara later married Glenway Wescott’s brother. She and Monroe began a small exclusive press that reproduced many classic and some contemporary books on high quality bindings on top quality paper. During their time in France Glenway Wescott published his first highly successful novel — Grandmothers. They remained intimate friends throughout their lives even though in the later Paris years George was primarily sexually involved with Monroe Wheeler.

After attempting a literary career in the early 1930’s George turned his attention to photography to express himself. From the mid-1930’s into the early 1940’s Lynes’ artistic skill and his use of innovative lighting techniques became highly perfected. He was highly sought after for portraiture and fashion work. He was highly professional but Anatole Pohorilenko wrote that George loved to photograph young, natural nude men who by their “eroticism seemed to invite the viewer to join them in a candor-cum-mystery, the sharing of private space, the easy and relaxed acceptance of a mutual physicality, come what may”.

In a letter to Monroe Wheeler when George was struggling to establish a name for himself he wrote: “…if ever I am to be a successful photographer, exuberance and fantasy, or qualities of that order, will be the making of me, rather than calculations and impassivity.” The ménage à trois of George, Glenway and Monroe was together again in New York City in 1934. George lived happily with Glenway and Monroe in an apartment on East Eighty-ninth Street until 1940 when he abruptly moved out.

Experts agree that George created his legacy in the 1930’s. These were his best years both personally and professionally. To quote Anatole Pohorilenko in his essay The Exuberance and Fantasy of George Platt Lynes, Photographer, “The world of George Platt Lynes is nothing more than a timeless and beautiful extension of our own, one in which we, or rather, idealized versions of ourselves, forever young and handsome, ultimately but only for a brief visual moment, end up making love with ourselves.”

George had many lovers after his departure from Glenway and Monroe. He attempted a relationship with his studio assistant George Tichenor. George T. claimed to be straight but George Lynes seriously wanted him as a lover. Instead George Tichenor joined the army and was killed in action in 1942. George Lynes never recovered from that event even though he later became involved with George T.’s younger brother, Jonathan. Times were changing and World War II was not happy for this once highly successful photographer. George Lynes tried to restart his career in Hollywood after the war but was not successful. He returned to New York where he died in 1955.

The fashion world knew George as a highly regarded, artistic Vogue photographer. During his later years he did more nude photographs, many of which did not become public until after his death. Because of Westcott’s friendship with Alfred Kinsey of the Kinsey Institute in Indiana George was asked to make many photographs for Dr. Kinsey during his studies of human sexuality.

Students of George Platt Lynes’ work like David Leddick have done much research and publication to preserve the fantastic artistry of this pioneer in male nude photography. Lynes inspired contemporary photographers such as Tom Bianchi, Herb Ritts, Robert Maplethorpe, Don Wittman and Duane Michals who benefited from his pioneering work. To quote Tom Bianchi in his book In Defense of Beauty, “Lynes’ work speaks eloquently of our sense of gay alienation in his era.” Magnificent, daring early photographers like Lynes make it possible to enjoy the beauty of the nude male body more openly. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth we are thankful for the daring artistry of George Platt Lynes.