California dreamtime – the secret nudes of Denny Denfield
In the 1950s one of San Francisco’s most popular nude beaches was located near Westlake ant Daly City, just south of the city. It was here during the warm months that a slender young man would bring his camera. He would build a makeshift windbreak and then lie back and wait for the good-looking men to saunter past his little haven. When he saw a particularly nice, muscular subject, the photographer would walk out, greet the passerby and invite him back to the windbreak to have some pictures taken. More often than not, the model would agree and he would pose against the rugged cliffs and outcroppings of the California beach. The young man was there every weekend in the summer taking pictures and admiring the view, but no one ever knew his name. Occasionally, he would cell his subjects that he was called “Denny,’ but he refused even to say whether this was his first or his last name. It was all very mysterious and probably a little exciting.
It was not until many years later that the beach photographers name was revealed to a small circle of trusted friends. He was Lloyd Denfield but he had always used the nickname “Denny” in his circle of gay acquaintances. Like many homosexuals at the time, Denny lived a double life; during the work week, he had a good job as an accountant with the US Army at nearby Fort Baker. This was in the repressive era of Nixon and McCarthy when pansies, pinkos, and perverts were ruthlessly persecuted by the government. With this in mind, the photographer well knew that even the slightest hint of scandal would bring a rapid and catastrophic end to his career.
Denny had another reason for his secrecy and reticence. He lived with his mother, and he at tempted to keep from her the details of his other life. He chose to give expression to his feelings only on the weekends. The secret photographs that he took were the only material evidence of his true nature and they became symbolic of his spirit. Like his inner feelings, the pictures were kept carefully hidden and locked away, they were brought out into the light only briefly and then whisked back where few could see them. But then, Denny’s case was hardly unique considering the temper of the times and the intolerance of his city.
San Francisco, the cool, gray city by the Bay, is today a haven for freethinkers and bohemians of al sorts. In its time it has been a successive paradise for beatniks, hippies, and gays — a place where you leave your heart. But in the 1950’s the city was hardly the liberal Utopia that we now consider it — for many it was a place you just wanted to leave. Like most other large cities in North America. San Francisco’s mainstream culture was intolerant, repressive, and corrupt; it was still a place where cops were paid not to raid gay bars and homosexuals had to live the same furtive, alienated lives they had to endure elsewhere. It was in this milieu that Denny lived and functioned as both a government bureaucrat and a gay man.
Denfield loved to look at beautiful nude men. During World War II, he had served in the South Pacific, and there he remembered watching a group of naked Marines as they swam and sported in a tropical stream. This defining moment awakened a desire to record the transient masculine beauty that was represented by the nude young men, and he determined to put his scheme into action when he returned home to San Francisco. In the late 40’s and 1950’s it was very difficult to obtain photos of nude men; the ones that existed were passed clandestinely from one person to the next, but with Denny’s horror of exposure and his reclusive nature, he was hardly in a position to join the magic circle. He therefore did the only thing he could: he began to take his own.
Dean Heinrich was one of Denfield’s former models, and he remembered the experience of being recorded on film. Heinrich was walking along the beach when the photographer approached him and invited him back to a sheltered area a short distance away. Denny looked his model over speculatively, grabbing his arm and roughly whirling him around and then back again, all the time inspecting him carefully. “I felt like a prize ham at the county fair,” Heinrich admitted. “Still, he played on my vanity, and I loved it.” Apparently Heinrich passed muster, and the young man was snapped in a number of nude poses.
At the time of their first meeting, Heinrich recalls that Denny was of medium height, and had a slender rather than a muscular build. He was good looking, although he had angular features and wore glasses when he needed to inspect something carefully. The mysterious photographer then disappeared until the next weekend when he again showed up in this usual spot on the beach, and this time he had some pictures to give to his model. Denny usually took out the best photos for his collection and then gave two or three photos to the model; in the early days, they were always black and white photos.
Denny haunted the nude beaches of Northern California, both enjoying the opportunity to doff his own clothing and also to admire the other men who were there. Denfield loved the outdoors: he loved photographing outdoors; he liked doing lots of things outdoors — especially sex. Being anonymous on the weekends had its advantages, and Denny exploited his mystery, his photography, and his own good looks. He could always retreat back into the gray flannel world of accountancy when he had to. but on summer weekends, he could let his true nature run riot.
At some point in the late 1950s Denfield’s mother died, and he apparently inherited a fair amount of money. This marked a dramatic change in his life on many levels. He sold the house in which he and his mother had lived and bought a spacious home in the hills of Marin County, north of San Francisco. He stopped frequenting nude beaches about this time too. There were rumors that he had gotten into trouble with the authorities — probably nothing very serious — but enough to frighten him away from his former haunts and habits. With his new home, he finally had a place where he could indulge his passion for nude photography and muscular men in a private setting. Thus began what one witness has called “a five-year party in Marin.” There was always a lot of food, drinks, and sex to be had at Denny’s house, and one of the principal consumers of all of these was the genial host himself.
Despite the change in his lifestyle, Denny continued to take pictures. He also began to make contacts with others in the field of physique photography, and through them he started to share some of the models that could be trusted to pose discreetly; he also began to use hustlers to model for his pictures. After one of these male prostitutes robbed him, however, Denny was reluctant to photograph anyone who was unknown to him or to other photographers. For these reasons, fewer amateurs begin to show up in his photographs, but there were other innovations in his work, too. Sharp-eyed viewers can recognize some well known physique models of the time such as Andy Kozak, Gene Meyer, Tom Matthews, and John Winship.
Denny began to take pictures in a wonderful but now neglected medium: stereo views. Kodak came out with the stereo “Realist” camera in the mid-1950s, and Denfield was intrigued by the possibilities of shooting his nudes with the 3-D camera. Throughout his years of photographing men, Denny must have taken many thousands of these stereo views.
Later in his photographic career, Denfield took to whisking his models off to locations all over California. Some of his favorite places were the rocky hills around Chatsworth near Los Angeles, but he was most charmed by the scenery in the desert near Twenty-nine Palms. Many of his best work shows models posing next to the cactus, yuccas, and joshua trees of the desert landscape.
These outdoor photo sessions were often excuses for extended parties. According to one witness, Denny would often take half a dozen six-packs of beer, and he and the model would end up consuming the entire amount before they tumbled back into the car and careened homeward. At one point Denny became so drunk that he couldn’t see to drive home; it was after this experience that the photographer decided to quit drinking so heavily. With the mathematical logic of an accountant, he must have added up the advantages and the risks, and decided that it was simply not worth the danger. As he aged however, Denny made a lot of changes in his life.
Although his passion for photography tended to slow down through the early 1960’s, Denny continued to take both black and white and stereo views of young men who suited his fancy. Ironically, however, Denfield showed his work to very few people. This talented camera artist kept his work to himself, occasionally showing it to a small number of trusted friends, and then only after they had begged and cajoled him. So far as can be determined, only one or two of Denny’s photos were ever published, and these appeared in the bodybuilding magazine Strength and Health. They were conventional bodybuilding shots of a few local athletes such as Malcolm Brenner and Al Monoogan, but they were hardly Denfield’s best work; his finest work remained as hidden and reclusive as the photographer himself.
Denny stopped photographing nude men in the late 1960’s. When in 1967 the US Supreme Court reluctantly legalized the sale of nude photographs through the mails, the floodgates were opened and it became easy to obtain as many pictures of naked men as you wanted. Denfield had long insisted that he only took pictures because they were unobtainable any other way, so when that reason was removed, Denny had no desire to continue his hobby. He simply did not need to take pictures anymore. It was then that he turned from photographer to collector, buying up as many nudes as he could lay his hands on — and that was quite a few. By the time of his death, Denny had amassed a collection of many thousands of original physique and male nude photographs, not counting the thousands that he had taken himself.
Like his own pictures, his collection was stashed away in albums and locked cabinets and very few people had the good fortune to see any of it. It was about this time that the parties at the Marin house ended, and as soon as the free food and drink were taken away, most of the people who had helped themselves left, too. By the mid-1980’s, Denfield was no longer a young man, and only a few friends continued to visit the photographer. Part of the reason for his increasing isolation was that as he grew older, Denny began to get crotchety and difficult to get along with. He quarreled with just about all of his old associates at one time or another, sometimes cutting them off permanently.
Toward the end of his life, Denny became obsessed with acting. Despite his growing corpulence and advancing age, he enjoyed performing in local rest homes and other community venues in Marin County. Denfield had enjoyed a very active life as a gay man, but he was inwardly ashamed of being homosexual, so it is perhaps not surprising that he turned his back on his former life and the friends of his youth. He began to travel in other circles, and his new friends were just as ignorant of his collection, his photography, and his true self as those around him had ever been. To the end of his life, he remained a cipher.
Denny died in 1995 at the age of seventy, and he was given a huge funeral by his grateful friends and associates in Marin County. Unfortunately, only three gay people were in attendance in the otherwise packed church. It is a great stroke of luck, however, that those friends were able to rescue and preserve his wonderful collection, and the work of a hitherto unknown photographic genius is now available for the first time.