NEW YORK — Think what you think about Hugh Hefner and his magazine but know one thing is certain: The only arbiter of the It factor for all those women who made the centerfolds was Hef himself.
“I was at times reprimanded for shaking things up too much,” recalled photographer Josh Ryan, who rose from test shooter to senior contributor over nearly 10 years after landing what he considered a dream contract in 2006.
His Playboy stint ended in late-2015, when Playboy decided to do the unspeakable, perhaps bending to cultural shifts, banning nudity altogether for about a year.
Magazine researcher Samir Husni at the University of Mississippi described Hefner’s influence on Playboy’s photo style that generally endured through the decades this way:
“When all the other men’s magazines or sex magazines toward the beginning of the ’80s and the end of the ’80s became so pornographic and left nothing to the imagination in photography, Playboy stood its ground and kept that erotic aspect in the imagery. That’s one thing I credit to Hugh Hefner.”
Compared to Penthouse or Hustler, Husni said, or “all the other magazines competing with Playboy when the cable television era came in and then the internet,” Playboy resisted going hardcore and Hefner attempted to echo the artistic elements of portraiture that have existed for thousands of years.
Ryan agreed, though as an insider he participated in a subtle evolution.
“The photography definitely evolved, probably around 2012 in my time there,” he said. “It became more simplified, less set up, less lighting with not more than one or two lights, more like editorial type shots.”
Ryan said with the advent of social media, girl-next-door types went away and instead, Instagram and Twitter stars became centerfolds.
“We were always looking for the It factor but Hef signed off on every single pictorial. We came up with a theme, we did a test shoot, he’d make notes on what he liked and didn’t like … It was a balance of Hef and a more modern set of art directors and editors.”
That balance, as Hefner grew older, sometimes included a dose of trickery.
“Probably about three years ago now, I found a girl on Instagram with a shaved head, We had never had anyone with a shaved head. She was a model in New York. She wanted to do it. I brought her to the editors and most of the editors said, ‘No way, Hef will never go for it.’ I finally got her out to L.A. for a test. She grew her hair out just a little bit and Hef ended up loving it. Ultimately, she became a very popular Playmate,” Ryan said, referring to Britt Linn, Miss March 2014.
An early Playboy influence was Alberto Vargas, creator of classic World War II-era pinup girls. His illustrations graced Esquire and then Playboy under a handshake arrangement with Hefner, said Theron Kabrich, co-founder of the San Francisco Art Exchange, which sells works by Vargas.
The Vargas woman, he said, was a girl next door, as were many in Playboy, especially early Playboy. The Vargas woman was shown, always, looking straight into the lens, if there had been one. Hefner stuck to that tradition.
“Hef grew up with that imagery,” Kabrich said. “He had a great fondness for Alberto’s imagery. He did a special piece on Alberto’s work in 1957 just because he wanted to praise Alberto and his legacy. After that, there was so much enthusiasm about seeing Alberto in print again that by 1960 he provided a painting a month for Playboy.”
New York art gallery owner Steven Kasher had a peek into the It-factor mind of Hefner when it came to how each spread was finalized.
“About 10 years ago I was shown the Playboy archives in their headquarters in Chicago,” he said. “They were thinking of digitizing and selling their archival materials. I was shown the original marked-up centerfolds and told that Hef personally oversaw the retouching of each one.
“He had made marks indicating this rump should be smaller, that loin tighter, that breast bigger, etcetera. It reminded me of those diagrams of cuts of meat. I proposed a show of those marked-up centerfolds to the International Center of Photography, to critique the full commodification of the flesh, in a sexy way. They loved the idea. But it wasn’t exactly on their front burner.”
It never happened.
So exactly how did society’s attitudes impact Hef’s It-factor eye? Not so much, Husni surmises.
“The imagery almost stayed the same. Maybe every now and then you’d see some pubic hair or something showing in the picture but it was never widespread like Penthouse was doing or Hustler was doing,” he said. “We have this Puritan society that will attack you for having a nude picture but at the same time we are the largest producers of pornography. I still don’t think there’s a future for Playboy. Unless they can give the 20-something generation something they can’t find anywhere else, it’s not going to work.”
Because, Husni concluded of Hefner’s influence: “He was the audience. Playboy is really for an audience of one and now that one is gone.”