Book Reviews

Robert Mainardi. Strongman: Vintage Photos of a Masculine Icon.
San Francisco: Council Oaks Books, 2001. 
ISBN 1-57178-101-3.  112 pages.  $24.95, hardcover. 
(Companion postcard book available.)


Strongman is based on one man's lifelong collection of specialty photographs.  The collector, Robert Mainardi, has a world-class set of pictures to offer the interested reader, ranging from the 1880s to the 1950s.  Several types of photos appear in the book: cabinet cards, studio portraits, performance pictures, and amateur snapshots of unknown men at work or play -- often in pairs or groups.  A wide variety of men get depicted, some deliberately posed and others caught off-guard. Since the pictures appear chronologically by era, the book documents the evolving styles of physical culture over eight decades.

Strongman has two introductions, both worth reading. The short foreward -- by Jules Bacon, AAU Mr. America for 1943 [] -- is touching.  Mainardi's introduction explains how he first became interested in collecting the pictures, with anecdotes about how he collected them. I don't care to imagine how much they cost.  A true collector is willing to spend what it takes, though, and Mainardi is a collector in the truest sense.

Many names in bodybuilding showmanship appear in this book: Eugen Sandow, Tony Sansone, Steve Reeves, Jack Lalanne, and Charles Atlas.  Others known in their time, like Pierre Gasnier, also appear.  The earlier strongmen demonstrated feats of strength in touring circuses, as did Gasnier (for Barnum and Bailey).  Sandow became so popular that he didn't have to perform, just show up and pose like a living  sculpture.  Later on, muscle beaches were the thing; then bodybuilding contests came to the fore.  Mainardi ends the book before bodybuilding was professionalized in the 1960s.  These pictures maintain their aura by drawing us back to an unattainable past.

The pictures that interested me the most are the cabinet cards of the 1890s, so I'll discuss them here.  Cabinet cards were dramatically posed pictures by studio photographers of the late 19th century.  Watery of Paris did a cabinet card of Gasnier in which he stands over a primitive barbell weighing "236 livres" (as the label on the 'bell reads).  He holds a horseshoe in one hand, which he no doubt bends flat in his circus act.  His arms are decorated with bands, and he sports an elaborate moustache, as do several of the 1890s bodybuilders.  Another picture in the sequence shows him hoisting the 'bell.  He must have wowed the crowds, and he still looks impressive a century later.

Hana Studios of London (22 Bedford Street) is represented by two cabinet cards.  In one, we get the back double bicep pose of a man holding his forearms perpendicular to his upper arms.  The tight muscularity would be that of an NPC light- or middleweight competitor nowadays.  His face is lost to the shroud of time. 

The other Hana photo is my favorite in the book.  In it a man does a side single-bicep pose, gazing down at his arm.  Dressed in a sleeveless white shirt, he holds his other arm behind his body.  His forearm is as big as his upper arm, his chest less developed.  He holds a clinched fist directly in front of his face.  The expression is self-contained and self-mesmerized -- altogether a brilliant photo.

Napoleon Sarony, of 37 Union Square, New York, provides the last pictures I'll mention.  In one, French strongman Charles A. Simpson stands with crossed arms looks impassively at something outside the photo.  His waxed moustache is large enough for Pancho Villa.  A medal of some sort hangs from his neck.  The photo emphasizes the muscularity of his delts and arms; again, the chest isn't comparable in size, and the forearms rival the upper arms.  Finally we get an 1898 closeup of Sandow staring at his cocked bicep.  He's shirtless, gazing down on his arm, his fist held level with his forehead.  Although not huge, his upper arm is perfectly shaped.  Sandow first posed for Sarony in 1893, selling many thousands of pictures for the studio, often in fig-leaf poses.  This one displays the aesthetics that made Sandow a world-famous strongman of his time.

Most of the book's pictures are in black and white, the oldest having a now-yellowed sepia tint.  Intensely nostalgic, they bring a lost world back to life.  To anyone interested in that world, I recommend this fine book.

Mike Emery
September 2002