The case of the Ivy League posture photos
July 13, 2004 8:44 AM   Subscribe

ONE AFTERNOON IN THE LATE 1970's, deep in the labyrinthine interior of a massive Gothic tower in New Haven, an unsuspecting employee of Yale University opened a long-locked room in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium and stumbled upon something shocking and disturbing.

Shocking, because what he found was an enormous cache of nude photographs, thousands and thousands of photographs of young men in front, side and rear poses. Disturbing, because on closer inspection the photos looked like the record of a bizarre body-piercing ritual: sticking out from the spine of each and every body was a row of sharp metal pins. The case of the Ivy League posture photos.
posted by alphanerd (34 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
After reading the first paragraph, I was really hoping for something Lovecraftian--it was a bit of a letdown after that.

Seriously, though, interesting story.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:48 AM on July 13, 2004


alphaneard, thanks so much for posting this. This easily ranks in my top ten most interesting MeFi posts ever.
posted by anastasiav at 9:10 AM on July 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

Damn you A. N. ! I have work to do!

[returns to reading the fascinating thing]
posted by mwhybark at 9:13 AM on July 13, 2004

No Yale class of '68?

posted by gottabefunky at 9:15 AM on July 13, 2004

There was an article written for the New York Times Magazine in 1995 that had some photos to go along with it. Additionally, many non-Ivy (but "high-ranking") liberal arts colleges in the northeast did this, too.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:22 AM on July 13, 2004

This was first written about by Ron Rosenbaum in the early 90s, and his typically brilliant article about it appears in his collection, "The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms"
posted by Faze at 9:24 AM on July 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

Sally Quinn (Smith '63), the Washington writer, expressed alarm when I first reached her. "God, I'm relieved," she said. "I thought you were going to tell me you found mine. You always thought when you did it that one day they'd come to haunt you. That 25 years later, when your husband was running for President, they'd show up in Penthouse."

For their upcoming "Hot, Ivy League Wide Open Posture Shots" spread.
posted by jennyb at 9:29 AM on July 13, 2004

Really interesting subject matter - thank you alphanerd for the link - I'd never heard of this before. I cannot imagine being asked to pose nude by my college - spines and pseudoscience or not - couldn't they just refuse? Talk about blatant abuse of trust!

Did anyone else think the article was horribly written? Sort of all over the place.
posted by widdershins at 9:40 AM on July 13, 2004

That was awesome: thanks alphanherd.

It's frightening to think that there may have been eugenics master-race research going on in Ivy League schools a decade or two after the defeat of the nazis, but perhaps it shouldn't be all that surprising.
posted by The God Complex at 9:43 AM on July 13, 2004

For their upcoming "Hot, Ivy League Wide Open Posture Shots" spread.

c'mon, jennyb, it's the Ivy League, just how hot could it be?
posted by jonmc at 9:48 AM on July 13, 2004

Damn, but this article has it all - Skull 'n Bones, Nazis, nudity, Native Americans, pseudo-science, Camille Paglia....

*raises scorecard of 10*
posted by junkbox at 9:52 AM on July 13, 2004

No Yale class of '68?

No, but John Kerry's class of 1966 was in the archive.
posted by alphanerd at 9:56 AM on July 13, 2004

Can anyone confirm or deny that the link above is NSFW?
posted by falconred at 10:15 AM on July 13, 2004

c'mon, jennyb, it's the Ivy League, just how hot could it be?

I dunno, Diane Sawyer mighta been a fox back in the day.

Sweet link, alphanerd. Thanks.

falconred: It's all text, so unless you're worried about the URL, you should be fine.
posted by Ufez Jones at 10:17 AM on July 13, 2004

Certainly an interesting read. Good post alphanerd
posted by a3matrix at 10:27 AM on July 13, 2004

falconred - It's the most explicit nsfw photos I have ever seen.
Do not, I repeat DO NOT trust ufez. This stuff is filthy!
posted by Peter H at 10:38 AM on July 13, 2004

Excellent (and safe-for-work) post.
posted by Prospero at 10:44 AM on July 13, 2004

What is wrong with all of you!?! Don't trust Prospero either!

(joking - it is a great post, thanks)
posted by Peter H at 10:51 AM on July 13, 2004

Do not, I repeat DO NOT trust ufez.

Normally, pretty sage advice.
posted by Ufez Jones at 10:54 AM on July 13, 2004

When I was a sophomore, there was a short and mumbled report in our college newspaper about old nude pictures that turned up in New Haven, but it just raised more questions than answered them. So glad this article is able to shed so much light on this subject.
posted by of strange foe at 11:10 AM on July 13, 2004

Camille Paglia on the posture photos:
"I'm very interested in somatotypes," she said. "I constantly use the term in my work. The word 'ectomorph' is used repeatedly in 'Sexual Personae' about Spenser's Apollonian angels. That's one of the things I'm trying to do: to reconsider these classification schemes, to rescue them from their tainting by Nazi ideology. It's always been a part of classicism. It's sort of like we've lost the old curiosity about physical characteristics, physical differences. And I maintain it's bourgeois prudery.

"See, I'm interested in looking at women's breasts! I'm interested in looking at men's penises! I maintain that at the present date, Penthouse, Playboy, Hustler, serve the same cultural functions as the posture photos."
Damn... I thought we'd gotten rid of her... she gobbled her own 15 so long ago that there must be 300 people who'll go to their grave without theirs.
posted by lodurr at 11:30 AM on July 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

Judith "Miss Manners" Martin, a Wellesley alumna, has alluded to being one of the photographed in her column.
posted by obloquy at 11:46 AM on July 13, 2004

This is excellent. Incredibly interesting and worth the read.

Did anyone else think the article was horribly written? Sort of all over the place.

I actually thought it was well-written and contained some definite gems, like these:
It was here that my quest for another kind of tribal illustration -- the taboo images of the blue-blood tribe, the long-lost nude posture photos -- culminated at last.

. . .

What Hersey seemed to be saying was that entire generations of America's ruling class had been unwitting guinea pigs in a vast eugenic experiment run by scientists with a master-race hidden agenda. My classmate Steve Weisman, the Times editor who first called my attention to the letter, pointed out a fascinating corollary: The letter managed in a stroke to confer on some of the most overprivileged people in the world the one status distinction it seemed they'd forever be denied -- victim.

. . .

There were also undated photos from the Oregon Hospital for the Criminally Insane (which I could not distinguish in any way from the Ivy League photos).

According to the article, and contrary to the rumor, it is "not strength but weakness of the masculine component" that is "more frequent in the heavier smokers." Here, perhaps, is the most profound cultural legacy of the Sheldonian posture-photo phenomenon: the blueprint for the sexual iconography of tobacco advertising. If, in fact, heavy smokers looked more like Harvard nerds than Marlboro men, why not use advertising imagery to make Harvard nerds feel like virile cowboys when they smoked?
[bold text mine]

Obviously these photos never culminated in any proposed program of eugenics, but the overtones are there, and one can imagine certain parties salivating at the idea.

Fascinating stuff. All of this from one man's quest to prove a correlation between body type and other variables like intelligence and success. Barely a step beyond the pseudo-science of phrenology, yet taken completely seriously by society and society's supposed "elite" institutions of the time.
posted by Shane at 11:53 AM on July 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

i agree with Paglia. a blatant abuse of privacy and the apparently racist theory behind the posture pictures make them deplorable, but i think it would be worthwhile to have "atlases" of all the different male and female body types (from voluntary models, of course), available in every school library. there are a lot of people that don't get to see normal naked bodies.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:55 AM on July 13, 2004

Indeed, this does seem to me to be only a small step up from phrenology. I found the Paglia passage particularly interesting because it illustrates two things for me: That uncritical minds can still take these ideas seriously; and that po-mo intellectual hacks can still eke of career out of never quite admitting whether or not they're being ironic.

ON PREVIEW: You agree with Paglia? Hm... I'm not sure we're hearing her say the same thing...she is good at that, though: Making everyone who hears her, hear something different.

... horribly written ...

I thought it was horribly formatted. If this were in, say, NR or Atlantic or some rag like that, all nicely typeset into narrow, scannable columns, it would be much easier to understand.

Once I hit ctrl-+ a few times to blow up the type (and shorten the line-length), it was fine...I'd recommend printing it and re-evaluating.
posted by lodurr at 12:01 PM on July 13, 2004

I enjoyed the rambling style of the writer, myself, although it was a bit hard to read. This is really fascinating, albeit somewhat disturbing. Via a quick search I found this photo, this photo, and this pdf file, with lots of photos (scroll through), these being the best, because you can actually see the pins and how they were used. I also found a few more articles, some very enlightening. Great post, alphanerd.
posted by iconomy at 12:02 PM on July 13, 2004

This article was lifted from another source. I read it elsewhere a couple of years ago.
posted by jjg at 12:10 PM on July 13, 2004

Judging from the content of iconomy's links, the article is the one from New York Times Magazine in 1995, which Civil_Disobedient first made mention of.
posted by alphanerd at 12:15 PM on July 13, 2004

[this is good]
posted by dg at 3:42 PM on July 13, 2004

I found a mess of these on usenet (NSFW but pretty tame). All the same visual format, all named "posture." No idea what the story is.
posted by squirrel at 6:21 PM on July 13, 2004


I remember being freaked out the idea of 'cold airs', where people who live in a frat or sorority all sleep in the same room with the windows all open at night. To ward of germs or something (hello, we have penicilin now).

Yeah it was pretty strange. people do werid shit.
posted by delmoi at 11:18 PM on July 13, 2004

Too modern to be "true" posture pictures.

Fourth chick is hot.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:19 PM on July 13, 2004

Those "modern" posture pics remind me of photos from a couple of books, called Naked New York and Naked Los Angeles, by photographer Greg Friedler. In those books, people are pictured first with their clothes on and then in the same poses without clothes. It's strangely compelling and not pornographic in the slightest.
posted by jmcnally at 11:44 AM on July 14, 2004

The "modern" posture pics are by Akira Gomi. They seem to be used as artists models. There're a bunch more here (NSFW).
posted by willnot at 11:51 AM on July 14, 2004

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