‘DEVOTION: Excavating Bob Mizer’ is on display at Steinhardt’s 80 Washington Square East Gallery from November 23 through February 15.
The first solo presentation of the work of photographer and filmmaker Bob Mizer, the exhibition was organized by Billy Miller, Jonathan Berger, and Dennis Bell of the Bob Mizer Foundation. The show features photographs that span Mizer’s career, many on view for the first time. The exhibit also features live archiving as students from the Department of Art and Art Professions and the Graduate School of Arts and Science’s Museum Studies program unearth 500,000 of the his never-before-seen negatives.
“Mizer is known primarily for pioneering what is now widely regarded as “beefcake” photography that he pursued through his company, the Athletic Model Guild (AMG), but this genre is only one of many that he pursued over the course of nearly 50 years of creative production,” said Berger. “We literally have no idea what we will find. That’s what’s so exciting. The students working on the preservation will be discovering new artworks and information about Mizer’s life each day.”
The photographs unearthed in DEVOTION are likely to be images that Mizer produced privately, for himself, independently of AMG and its associated publication, ‘Physique Pictoral.’ Mizer’s sought to document American cultural history, recording virtually every popular and subcultural “scene” and “type” to emerge between the 1940s and 1990s including nature boys, beatniks, greasers, female and male body builders, beauty queens, soldiers, religious figures, magicians, circus performers, Hollywood actresses, gang members, cowboys, hippies, hustlers and their girlfriends, punks, new wavers, drifters, farm boys, surfers, druggies, construction workers, artists, activists, ex-cons, would-be politicians. He also shot portraits of children and animals.
“Mizer staged a remarkable series of photographs employing AMG models and their girlfriends posed in often abstract, surreal, and politically provocative tableaux, for which he constructed sets and costumes,” said Billy Miller, co-curator of the exhibition. Students in Steinhardt’s Costume Studies program, will be archiving costumes, which are also part of the exhibition.
The galleries contain large worktables with light boxes and archiving equipment. Throughout each day of the exhibition, students will work on organizing and returning negatives to Mizer’s original order, scanning transparencies, and cataloging the archive for preservation. The public nature of the archiving process affords visitors the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the new bodies of work being discovered. A selection of images unearthed through the archiving process will be displayed and changed daily by those processing the archive.
“This act of excavating Mizer’s work is, by extension, an excavation of his life,” Berger said. “Each image serves as evidence, the occasion for further research, and a contribution towards building a biography for this enigmatic American photographer. He is arguably one of the most compellingly prolific cultural documentarians of the 20th century.”
(Photos — top to bottom: Bree Evans, a graduate student in Museum Studies, archives 4×5 negatives; Morgan Thomas, a senior in Steinhardt’s studio art program, scans negatives. Photo Credit: Debra Weinstein.)