If you’re heterosexual and were born after the Vietnam War, you’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Bob Mizer. A pioneer of the “beefcake” genre of photography, Mizer shot thousands of male models and produced hundreds of thousands of images in his lifetime. Although the vast majority of them never became famous, a few recognizable names did pose for Bob, including Joe D’Allesandro before he became a Warhol star, artist Jack Pierson, and even a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In June 1967, in his self-produced magazine Physique Pictorial, he railed against censorship.

“In America we like to feel (and many of us boast) that we have the maximum amount of freedom to think and believe as we like as long as we don’t try to force our views on others … But there are certain insidious groups at work in our country who don’t agree, rather they demand that you conform to their narrow perverted views and interpretations even in your own home—your inviolable castle.”

A portrait of Bob Mizer from 1946

A portrait of Bob Mizer from 1946

More than just a photographer, Mizer paved the way for the legalization of nude photography in the US—gay and straight alike with his indefatigable advocacy for freedom of expression.

Mizer founded the Athletic Model Guild (AMG) in 1945, long before the boom-chika-wow-wow era of hardcore porn. Mizer intended the AMG as a sort of talent agency. He presented male models in the back pages of men’s magazines and weightlifting periodicals, promoting their photos as inspiration for artists and bodybuilders. But when the Postmaster General cracked down on such magazines advertising anything but—in the words of writer F. Valentine Hooven III—“American flags and guns,” Mizer was forced to devise a new business model. A short time later, he began producing Physique Pictorial, little more than a pocket-sized zine of his photographs stapled and pasted together by Bob’s own hand, featuring buff youths dramatically lit and posed in front of kitschy, Hollywood-esque sets. It quickly found an audience.

Up until 1969, however, Mizer never published nude photos in his magazine. Instead, the models wore primitive G-strings called “posing straps,” which were knitted by Mizer’s mother. He exposed everything he legally could but no more than that; he’d already spent time behind bars. Shortly after the founding of AMG, he had been falsely accused of having sex with one of his models, a minor, and was sentenced to a year in a prison work camp in Saugus, California. The experience shaped his photography for the next two decades.

“The LA Police Department targeted him early on and just harassed him endlessly,” says Dian Hanson, the “Sexy Books” editor for Taschen. She has produced two books on Mizer—Bob’s World and the recently published 1,000 Model Directory, the latter of which even includes an aerial surveillance photo of Bob’s house from the LAPD.

“They believed that he was holding young men hostage in his compound,” Hanson says.

Far from it: The razor wire encircling Bob’s house was intended to discourage prying eyes, as well as the occasional model who might be tempted to burglarize him. “He photographed straight, rough guys. Those sort of hoodlum, trashy guys that I have always liked,” Hanson says.

But Mizer, an often shy and extremely self-conscious man, acted as a father figure to his models, even spending lavishly on them at times. “Bob helped support all the guys who fought World War II. All those early models were ex-sailors, ex-soldiers who mustered out in Southern California and couldn’t get work. Bob supported the Greatest Generation,” Hanson says.

Bob Mizer

Bob Mizer

Over the years, Bob’s place became a hangout for young men, where they suntanned beside the pool and frolicked with his assortment of animals, including dogs, goats and Capuchin monkeys, which often appeared in photos alongside his models. “People would say he had more lawsuits from monkey bites than anything else,” says Hanson. “If you came to do business with him, you’d have to do business with the monkey first.”

Still, it was dangerous work. Both gay and straight photographers were still getting arrested throughout the early 1960s (Hef himself was arrested for obscenity in June of 1963) “You have the newsstand straight magazines like Playboy and Gallery; then you had what they used to call the ‘California slicks,’ which were printed on thicker paper and always showed a little bit more,” Hanson says. “And those were the people who were going to jail through the ‘60s and setting the precedents.”

Hanson cites a court case in Minneapolis involving a gay-oriented studio, DSI, that published its own work as well as Mizer’s, and which helped to pave the way for legal male nudity. “At the same time that DSI was being arrested, these companies were being arrested, and they set the same precedents around ‘67-’68 that opened the doors for people to start experimenting with complete nudity, which really began in the straight magazines in 1968.” That straight mags went first makes sense: “The gay magazines lagged just a little bit until 1969, because they were being targeted more.”

While Mizer had no interest in running afoul of the law again, he didn’t exactly stay quiet. Nearly every issue of Physique Pictorial contained Bob’s meandering and grammatically awkward political diatribes, in which he railed against everything from censorship to capital punishment.

“Public opinion is eventually echoed in legislative action so we must all do what we can to mold that opinion,” he wrote in a June 1962 issue, tucked beneath black-and-white photos of nearly nude men. “Every infinitesimal victory helps a little.”

As the liberalization of the ‘60s gained steam, so did the photographer’s militancy. “Late years have seen wonderful progress in freedom of the press and expression, but let no one believe that Mrs. Grundy has taken all this lying down. Indeed, she is still doing everything in her power to destroy our basic American freedoms,” wrote Mizer in a 1963 screed.

He was hardly alone with these apologia. Indeed, many naturist magazines of the era included defenses of nudity, as if their readers needed any convincing. A January 1967 issue of Mr. Sun featured among the photos of nude, flaccid men an essay on the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which argued that while the thinker was not “an actual card-carrying nudist…he wouldn’t have hesitated to shed his cumbersome 18th-century duds at the drop of a cocked hat, if the occasion had arisen.”

Clearly, the nude revolution had arrived, but even after the DSI victory in 1967, Mizer waited until January of 1969 to publish the first nude photos in Physique Pictorial. It was only then that Mizer was able to “fully realize himself,” as he wrote in his diaries. For Mizer, the political was personal.

Bob Mizer

Bob Mizer

“A lot of people don’t question where certain civil rights came from,” says Dennis Bell, the president and curator of the Bob Mizer Foundation. “This was a guy who wasn’t so much about fighting for rights that he thought anybody should have. It’s just that he was fighting for himself. This was the spirit of a true artist.”

Bell created the foundation in 2010, after purchasing Mizer’s estate several years earlier. It was with his help that the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art launched an exhibition showcasing the work of Mizer and Tom of Finland in 2013; NYU followed suit with a solo show of Mizer’s photography around the same time. The foundation is now in the process of setting up a three-floor exhibition and research space in Downtown San Francisco, and also plans to relaunch Physique Pictorial as a quarterly magazine this summer.

The goal: to educate a new generation about the people who fought for the right to celebrate the human body.

“Bob and a few other people of his time were relentless in doing what they did, and for him that was getting public acceptance of nudity and sexual photography,” says Hanson. “It was people like Bob Mizer who took the big chances. He put his freedom on the line every day. For him to get freedom for men to be naked pushed along the rights for women to be naked, and for heterosexual men to look at what they enjoy looking at.”

Ultimately, however, Mizer’s brand of erotica wasn’t able to compete with the emergence of the porn industry. As he got older, the photos got grittier—and so did his models—but he never waded into hardcore territory. Although he continued photographing men practically every day until his death in 1992, he knew something had changed only two years after his first nude issue.

“Apparently we are too wild for some, not ‘far out’ enough for others,” Mizer wrote in 1971. “Stands which used to handle our book when the models were in straps say they are unable to display nude books because of public pressure. Book stores don’t want it because it isn’t pornographic, and they claim (erroneously we think) that all their customers now want pictures showing full sexual action.”

Nevertheless, Mizer’s rigid vision kept him going. He continued to print Physique Pictorial until 1990, when he was in his late 60s. He shot his last model only a few months before he passed away, 25 years ago today.

“Bob Mizer, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Bob Guccione—they were very, very similar characters. They had strong personalities, they had strong visions, they were driven to do what they did and continue through any obstacles,” says Hanson.

“All he wanted to do was shoot guys,” Bell says, “and he didn’t feel anything should stand in his way.”