The unseen gay photographs of Tom Of Finland

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Tom from Finland / Fotografiska

It can be hard to remember that there was a time, not so long ago, when depictions of gay men were extremely rare. Tom of Finland was a Finnish artist well known for his underground erotic drawings of men, which he made from the 1940s until his death in 1991. The drawings – which were illegal for most of his life, as being homosexual was illegal in Finland until 1971 – also inspired the aesthetic foundation of modern popular gay culture, depicting men in roles prohibited at the time in a variety of ways, whether serving in the military or to have an open relationship.

“Its mission was to spread joy and to spread this feeling of freedom of expression,” said Durk Dehner, one of the co-founders of the Tom of Finland Foundation.

Tom’s drawings were not simply products of his imagination; part of their appeal is their intimate expressions, which were taken from reference photos Tom has taken of hundreds of men over the years.

Dehner, along with his partner SR Sharp, spoke with BuzzFeed News about Tom’s long legacy and the current exhibition of his photographs and reference material which is on display at Fotografiska in New York.

A version of this interview first appeared in our JPG photo newsletter. Sign up for more exclusives.

How did the images play a role in Tom’s process?

SR Sharp: Tom would find a model, take a picture and then he would have to develop the film because he couldn’t take it to an outside lab, especially in Finland. He made a print of it in his own darkroom, then cut out the print and pasted it into his reference binders.

He had to go through such a process for his fans because at the beginning in the 1950s people heard about him and wrote to him saying, “I like to buy some of your prints, but how can I know what they are? Like? ”So he made these little 4×6 catalog pages, maybe 20 photo images on it, that he could send back to the fan, who would send him a letter asking which ones they liked, plus some foreign currency.

Then Tom would have to make the footprints, and they had to be in that 4×6 size, because they couldn’t be bigger than an airplane envelope. It was an extremely tedious process, but he always had in mind to try to market his work.

Durk Dehner: He said his favorite part was if you know a model it really makes a difference to him. He was able to capture their mind in a certain way and be able to integrate it into the drawing.

He really felt that gays deserved to be happy and to love who they wanted to love. And so that straight guys can give them the space and the ability to do it without any shame or guilt.

Tom from Finland / Fotografiska

Can you talk a bit about how Tom’s reception has changed? Looks like he never lacked in popularity, but he was definitely a lot more underground than he is now.

Sharp: It’s like realizing a whole new dimension in an artist. You get to see more vulnerability. I always thought that his work could really be assessed on so many different levels. You can see in this exhibition these reference pages, which include personal photographs that he made himself, then collages of other models that he has taken from magazines, and these are works of art in them. same, these reference pages.

If we look back, for example, at his work McCann Erickson, he drew the perfect Finnish family – and he created a world that was the perfect homosexual world. There is no shame. It was outside during the day. It was just a happy expression of sexuality. And that’s the whole world that he created and that we started to emulate and dress like him. He was like grandpa, you really mean that, for lack of a better term, like the aesthetic of the gay community itself, not just erotic art.

He made it very clear that he was not an activist, but what he really did was very militant or subversive in the way he viewed masculinity. [and] gave it to homosexuals. Before that, there was only one type allowed by society, which was that the interpretation of the homosexual as a [effeminate] Queen. He wanted to have a choice in the matter. Tom gave us permission to be anything. He drew us as sailors and soldiers, but we really couldn’t be open in the military. And he was drawing all these things that were denied to us.

Dehner: Many artists today and before have admired him for his unfailing open-mindedness in his work. Its mission was to spread joy and to spread this feeling of freedom of expression.

Tom from Finland / Fotografiska

You talk about how he knew a lot of his role models – was it kind of like an insider club where you tried to be seen in his work, or was it more closed, where people maybe tried to not be recognizable in case it falls into the wrong hands?

Sharp: We did a show here in Los Angeles at the Western Project and some guy came up to me with a little Ziploc bag and he said: This is a photo Bob Mizer took of me in 1955. I worked for the LA school district. If anyone had seen this, I would have been fired. It was very underground because it had to be underground. We only survived by navigating secret spaces and letting friends whisper and give us phone numbers.

Can you tell us a bit about the Tom of Finland Foundation and how it works now to promote its legacy?

Sharp: We’ve always worked with other artists on emerging erotic artist competitions, art fairs we’ve had in New York and Los Angeles, and we have drawing workshops here every month. . We’re all about other artists. This has been our mission almost since the very beginning of the foundation in 1984. We have a Pride Month fundraiser that runs until June 11 – an auction. There are artists who have donated works to help us raise funds for the Foundation.

Tom from Finland / Fotografiska

Tom from Finland / Fotografiska

Tom from Finland / Fotografiska


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