Jailbirds and Drifters: The Men of Old Reliable

A NIGHTCHARM CLASSIC
from June 2006


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Trade. Jailbird. Gay for Pay.

Those would be the names for the men seen in these photos.

Men from the San Francisco of a quarter century ago, tattooed drifters picked up from lowlife saloons along the Tenderloin, in the lobbies of boozy single-men hotels, outside of store-front clinics where you could sell your blood by the pint.

David Hurles came upon these idle, pent-up studs like a stroke of good luck, a chance to make some easy money, and all they had to do was jerk off while he snapped pictures and made tapes of them talking about their lives.

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A skinny unassuming guy, Hurles had made a name for himself in locally produced porn reels, thanks to his oversized organ and his double-jointed ability to auto-fellate (always an ice-breaker).

Now he was in business for himself: "Old Reliable" as he called his "tape and picture" company, and as he himself became known to millions of mail-order fans with a taste for sexy psychos.

Hurles specialized in an extreme type of marginalized man. Rough trade is too tame a word. These guys seemed to be fresh out of Alcatraz and two steps away from San Quentin.

Their arrogant sneers and frequent bird-flipping at the camera seemed to dismiss not merely the gay viewer but the whole stinking world. They appealed to an intense sort of bottom man -- one who thrilled to their bullying trash talk, to the torrents of rage, the hint of violence.

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Now the best of Old Reliable has been gathered in a large-format photo book Speeding, written and designed by Rex (himself a celebrated homo illustrator). Mostly photos, the book features occasional reflections from Rex on censorship, the politics of pornography and the overwhelming power of Hurles' raw photo techniques.

Our one quibble with the book is that it does not feature an interview with Hurles himself (who, we learn, continues to work with roughnecks, though he has moved on to shooting videotapes). It would have been fascinating to hear anecdotes about his models, how he managed to get them not only in the house but out as well, with his valuables and life intact. Perhaps the photographer, who maintains neither an email address or a working website, wishes to remain a phantom of our collective imagination, the legendary Old Reliable of mysterious origin, whereabouts unknown, forever one step ahead of the law.

David Hurles, mug shot What we do learn of David Hurles (mug shot at right) is loosely outlined: Born in Cincinnati, goes West, becomes first a porn model then a porn photographer in San Francisco. He gets arrested a few times for sending pornography through the mail, then moves his operation from the foggy waterfront of the Bay Area to the seedy side streets off Hollywood Boulevard.

Guy with beretIn Hollywood, Hurles finds an even more hardened hustler eyeing the passing scene, many of them strung out on speedballs (hence, the book's title). Thumbs suspended from levi pockets, fingers idly drumming their bulgy wares, they seem more hunter than hunted. Their suspicious expressions and paranoid drug-eyes will soon be caught with an almost harsh finality in the lens of the skinny photographer who has just approached them.

The most amazing thing about Old Reliable's work is how powerful these seemingly amateur snapshots are, how their snap-dash quality enhances the sense of dirty furtiveness, of wild dick on the loose. They are, as the review on Amazon points out, "more Weegee than Weber."

Gentleman DanAuthor Rex makes a provocative argument in favor of Hurles that pits him against the polished pornography of studios like Falcon and of museum darlings like Robert Mapplethorpe.

"Hurles chose to downplay technical fireworks with his camera in order to focus on the emotional pyrotechnics of his models," contends Rex. As a result, Old Reliable's catalog of grifters and street hustlers "have the unvarnished emotional truth of passport photos combined with the no-frills utility of real estate photography ... which in a sense -- given the product they're selling -- they are."

The author then praises Hurles' "sometimes irritating trait" of askew angles and blurred shots, which he deems a refreshing break from "the American obsession with technical perfection."

"America's puritanical views on sex have resulted in sharply focused and brightly lit figure studies being designated as pornography." But this, he asserts, is a mistake, is merely an antiseptic counterfeit. "Real sexual photography actually has more in common with sports or candid news photography, where the blur and smudge of action lends authenticity to the proceeding."

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"A generation of gay photographers weaned on the pretty but stilted photographs of George Platt Lynes, Bruce of Los Angeles, and Robert Mapplethorpe," Rex observes, "have accepted clean, flattering aesthetics as an escape from the tough, in-your-face realities of genuine erotica."
The general culture has contributed to this trend as well.

"In their endless quest for pretty pictures that don't make political waves, museum and gallery directors perpetuate the myths of what comprises erotica -- and just what the real axis of homosexuality turns on."

Speeding book coverYou'll flip for 150 non-stop pages
of Old Reliable's work in
Speeding by Rex

Old Reliable's live-action videos
are available though
Bijou World of Chicago

See Also: Nightcharm's
When Rough Trade Was King

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