Scan It: The Truth in Black and White

It is itself a cliché to state that all clichés contain a kernel of truth. That said, James Gardiner's Who's a Pretty Boy Then? (Serpent's Tail, $25.99) amply proves two of the oldest clichés in the book to be absolutely true--one picture is worth 1,000 words, and every picture does tell a story. Subtitled "150 Years of Gay Life in Pictures," Gardiner's book is not intended to be a comprehensive history of English gay life. Based on his own and others' collections of photographs and supplemented by a wide range of archival material, Gardiner has amassed what he calls "my own personal and idiosyncratic view of what it has felt like to be a gay man in England." Gardiner wisely lets his pictures do the talking and they provide a fascinating glimpse into many aspects of gay life and culture. From Edwardian fops (think Merchant-Ivory) to Tom of Finland, from Greco-Roman statuary to the physique magazines of the 1950s, these photographs trace the evolution of gay ideas of male beauty over the past century and a half. The photographic history of cross-dressing runs from the transvestite aristocrats of the 1890s, to the "Soldiers in Skirts" revues popular during both World Wars, to contemporary London drag queens. Gardiner rounds up the usual suspects--Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward--but what gives this book its depth is his inclusion of such figures as Alan Turing, the brilliant Cambridge mathematician who cracked the Nazi's Enigma Code and who committed suicide in 1954 rather than risk exposure as a homosexual. While Who's a Pretty Boy Then? focuses mainly on England, Gardiner shows how British queer culture has been influenced from outside by including scenes of '20s Paris, '30s Berlin, '50s Amsterdam, and the pervasive "Castro Street clone" style of '70s San Francisco. With over 600 photographs, Who's a Pretty Boy Then? is a rich visual documentary, one that proves that, to quote one more cliché, We Are Everywhere.


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