Life & Culture

One Photographer’s Sensuous and Playful Take on the All-American Guy

Kim Jones collaborator Luke Smalley’s series ‘Exercise at Home’ is twist on the traditional American male

In the early 20th century, a new archetype emerged: the red-blooded American male. Young and fit, his athletic form exploded in fitness manuals and physique magazines, high school yearbooks and sports photography – becoming an ideal for many to aspire to, or simply admire.

Throughout his career, American photographer Luke Smalley (1955-2009) took this figure to new heights by exploring the playful and sensual side of the masculine – something that is beautifully illustrated in ClampArt’s new exhibition, Exercise at Home, which comes just over ten years since these images were taken.

“There is a twist on the traditional American male,” says Brian Paul Clamp, whose gallery, ClampArt, represents the estate. “There is whimsy in these pictures and something surreal as well. He turns things on their head.”

Smalley, who gained a degree in sports medicine from Pepperdine University and worked as a model and personal trainer, launched his photography career with Gymnasium (Twin Palms) a series of black and white photographs made over a period of 15 years in his northwest Pennsylvania hometown.

In 2002, British designer and artistic director for Dior Men’s Kim Jones discovered this book in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel in Manhattan, and hired Smalley to shoot his first fashion line (a series which has since become a rare and sought-after book). From this auspicious start, Smalley began a fashion photography career.

“Luke was meeting models and shooting for various campaigns,” Clamp explains. “He had a great reputation and real relationship with the models he worked with. They were friends and were willing to give their time freely to him in order to produce Exercise at Home, otherwise he would not have been able to afford them.”

Exercise at Home, Smalley’s first series of colour work, takes the idea of play and gently toys with it, with a knowing nod to the audience. He also constructed all of the props for the shoot, as well as the gym uniforms.

“It’s kind of anti-fashion,” says Clamp. “He veers towards something generic like white t-shirts and khaki shorts, black socks and black shoes. The clothes are a minor element in these photographs. He steers away from them, preferring to concentrate on the figures themselves.”

At the heart of this series, Smalley looks at the ways in which competition informs the dynamic between men through a lighthearted lens. “Exercise at Home has a lot of the same themes as Gymnasium, but it’s more specific,” says Clamp. “He’s speaking to competitions among males to establish themselves within the group.”

Whether engaging in a bizarre game of tug-of-war or bringing a pair of donkeys to the basketball court, there’s a fundamental sense that we’re all in it together, for better or for worse – so choose wisely, and have fun!

Exercise at Home is on view at ClampArt, New York, through January 19, 2019.