The daring double life of John Barrington

History Comments
The daring double life of John Barrington

The work of one of Britain’s most accomplished male physique photographers preceded Bob Mizer by nearly a decade, forever changing the art of capturing man’s beauty on film.

By all accounts, John S. Barrington could have been your next-door neighbor, albeit with a salacious secret. The very definition of suburban respectability, Barrington was a husband. A father. A grandfather. And an artist – though, according to historian and author Rupert Smith, London society of the mid-20th century would have called him anything but.

No Muscle Marys allowed

Barrington’s models, like those of Mizer, were both pictures of perfect physical health and upstanding morals.

"The classic Barrington model is not a muscle Mary, he's not in any way groomed or poofy, he's just very natural looking,” Smith said in a 1997 interview with the U.K.-based Independent. “If you look in gay magazines today, you find the models all posing, trying to look sexy, but these boys were usually just grinning directly at the camera. There's something real about them, you could imagine you might meet them or know them, they're a bit like your gym teacher or your brother's best friend.”

Born in 1921, Barrington, unofficially crowned Britain’s very first male physique photographer, began shooting models in 1938 at the age of 17. His first model was 16-year-old David Dulak – and thereafter, Barrington found that his models enjoyed the attention they received almost as much as Barrington enjoyed photographing them.

"The thing (Barrington) learnt really quickly,” Smith said in the interview with The Independent, "was that the average straight, good-looking, young guy is probably horny most of the time and finds the idea of being flattered, flirted with, seduced and coaxed by a photographer a big turn on. It's quite narcissistic, his models would get into the whole thing and get very turned on and I suppose if at the end he offered to `help them out' they were probably not going to complain too much."

Barrington's legal woes

Like Mizer, Barrington had his fair share of run-ins with the law. In October 1949, he was arrested by two undercover policemen for “harassing” men at a public urinal. Barrington escaped extensive prison time, however, and was slapped with a small fine on Jan. 6, 1950.

A mere two years later, Barrington was arrested and charged with sending obscene materials through the mail (he printed and sold photographs to subscribers of what would eventually become his physique magazine, “Male Model Monthly”). The images in question were of models with drawn-on briefs. The briefs, hastily drawn in with pencil, could be scratched off to reveal the model’s nude glory underneath. Barrington was found guilty of the offense in late 1955 and served three months in jail. He narrowly avoided jail time in 1962 after his home was raided and a variety of photos and magazines seized. Barrington was only ordered to pay a small fine in this case.

Unlike Mizer, however, who eventually was able to live openly as a gay man after the death of his mother in 1964, Barrington to his dying day vehemently denied his homosexuality, instead insisting he photographed male models out of his appreciation for art and the beauty of the male form at the peak of its health. In Barrington’s mind, engaging in sexual activity with his models, either before or after each photography session, wasn’t indicative of being homosexual; rather, it was a physical expression of his appreciation for his art.

Even more important was that [the model, and subsequent lover] was a normal, `healthy' young man, indulging in gay sex for the sheer physical pleasure,” The Independent’s Jonathan Dyson opined in his article, “and most emphatically not a queen, a queer, a class of person upon whom John heaped scorn despite the fact that he was to all appearances a major queen himself."

Barrington's beard came from one of his boys

Eventually, and ironically, Barrington married the ex-girlfriend of one of his former models. Like Mizer, Barrington kept a diary of his own daily activities and deepest desires and thoughts; in one entry shortly before his marriage began, he noted relief and gratitude at having found, “this thing I’ve prayed for so long, this normal and healthy and jolly relationship with a girl.” Barrington got his wish, staying married for 35 years.

And, just like Mizer, Barrington was the consummate “mama’s boy,” striving all his life to earn the approval and affection of his mother, as evidenced in several diary entries. Above all, Barrington was afraid of being ostracized by straight society and suffering a fate similar to that of other men outed for one reason or another throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.

Appearances in Physique Pictorial

Indeed, it was during those two decades that Barrington’s work flourished and rose in popularity. Barrington even contributed to Mizer’s magazine “Physique Pictorial,” which Dyson refers to as a “classic American title … equally dodgy and dodgily produced."

Strangely enough, while magazines like “Physique Pictorial” mostly dropped the pretense of only existing as a model for good health when nudity in media was legalized in the late 1960s, the quality of Barrington’s work began to suffer around that time. According to Dyson, Barrington felt uncomfortable with producing sexually explicit content. “The more closeted times seemed to suit him better,” Dyson observes in his article. Mizer, too, had difficulty acclimating to the portrayal of sex acts in his works. Sex scenes in many of Mizer’s films from the late 1960s and early 1970s came off as campy and forced, with Mizer using shampoo as a stand-in for semen, the presentation of which disgusted him.

A sad end to a long career

Barrington’s career went into a sharp downward spiral in the 1970s, when, having to compete with the porn-saturated market that, unlike his own photos, left nothing to the imagination, he pirated works by Wilhelm von Gloeden, Tom of Finland, and George Quaintance. According to Smith’s biography of Barrington, “Physique,” Barrington never fully had the chance to enjoy a resurgence in the popularity of male physique photography in the 1980s, as he was stricken by leukemia. Barrington died of complications from leukemia on August 28, 1991, only nine months before Mizer himself passed away.

Author and historian Rupert Smith said his biography of Barrington, laying bare the photographer’s innermost desires and passions, tells the story of a man shamed by his own sexuality and conflicted about his need for approval throughout his entire life.

"He craved recognition for his work but he also feared it because it would have rocked the boat, it didn't fit in with his life as a married man, a family man,” Smith said in his interview with Dyson. “He would never have allowed anyone to tell the truth about him while he was alive.”