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A Brief History of Western Photography Guild
by Andy Dimler
Western Photography Guild began offering their original physique photographs in 1947. These unique images, many made outdoors in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, were well received from the start. The creative force behind the studio was Don Whitman. Don served in in the Navy during world war two. Upon returning to his native Colorado, he began working as an accountant. Don had been inspired by a physique model that he met during the war, that there might be a future in the physique photography business. He placed an ad in the local newspaper for models. The response from local body builders was good, and Western started off with 12 handsome models and 12 sets of photographs offered in April of 1947.
The response from customers was also good, and the studio continued to photograph new models and add to its offerings. As the golden age of physique photography dawned in the 1950's Western Photography Guild was doing very well. In 1950 Don co-founded the Mr. Colorado Contest, along with Lester Workman and Phil Dewald. This created a major showcase for physical culture in the Rocky Mountain region. Lester Workman operated a popular health club on Denver's north side. It was used by many young men from the area. Many of them were contestants in the Mr. Colorado Contest. Don served as the director of the contest from 1950-1972. Many of the contest participants went on to be models for Western Photography Guild. During this time, Whitman came into his own as a skilled photographer. This along with a careful selection of models and the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado as a backdrop, allowed him to compete with more well established studios such as Lon Hanagan of New York, and Bob Mizer's Athletic Model Guild in California.
The studio flourished throughout the 1950's and on into the 1960's. Tragedy struck hard in June of 1965, when the South Platte River in Denver over-flowed its banks during a powerful June storm. The flood caused serious damage to the WPG studio, which at that time was close to the river. Much of the equipment was ruined. Many of the negatives were covered in mud and could never be printed from again. Don, along with the help of his family, employees and even some of the models began the daunting task of cleaning up the mess and saving and restoring what they could. Despite this serious blow, the studio moved forward and for the most part recovered. No doubt though, some really beautiful and unique images were lost forever.
In 1967 the laws concerning the mailing of frontal nude images were changed. It was now possible to photograph models without using a posing strap or clever concealment of their genitals. To a large degree Whitman's photographs from this period retain the artistic approach that made his earlier work so popular.
Don was well liked by most of the models he worked with, and many of them remained lasting friends for the rest of his life. I believe this aspect of Don Whitman comes through in his photographs which are almost entirely appreciative rather then exploitive. Western Photography Guild continued to photograph new models into the late 1980's. Don continued to operate the mail order print business himself into the early 1990's while his health remained good. Don passed away in 1998. His memorial service in Denver was well attended by family, friends and many of his models all the way back to the early years. A special honor guard detail from the United States Navy performed a flag ceremony in appreciation of Don's service in WWII. It was not easy to say good-bye. Don was a good friend to many people, and his passing left a real void for many of us.
After Don's Death, his material was relocated to his brother in law Robert Dimler's home, where it remained stored for several years. In about 2001 Elisa Townshend and Andy Dimler, Don's niece and nephew, began to work with Don's material to produce some prints for photo exhibits and for former models who were interested in having prints of themselves and their friends from earlier days. It was realized that there was still some interest in Don's work, and the decision was made to move forward to try and make some prints available again. While this process has been a little slow it continues to progress in a positive way. Sadly, Robert Dimler passed away in 2008. The physique world and Western Photography Guild is indebted to him for the work he did to preserve the WPG negatives in the years right after Don's death. This was the second time Robert had stepped in to help, as he was also very involved in assisting Don with the recovery from the flood of 1965. Robert was also the stage manager for the Mr. Colorado Contest that was held each Summer at the Phipps Auditorium in City Park in Denver throughout the 1950's and 60's. The Mr. Colorado contest was a fine production in those days and included a variety show along with the posing. Our entire family was involved. I was actually too young to help and just got in the way. But I have really fond memories of going to those contests. It became something we all looked forward to every year.
The male nudes of Don Whitman are unique. I believe his early work captures a wonderful time in the history of American photography. The war was over. Many handsome young men were genuinely interested in physical culture and building up their bodies. A relatively small number of American photographers began to capture these amazing bodybuilders on film, and Don Whitman's images are some of the best. His legacy is a wonderful body of work that captures over 40 years of the male nude in the 20th century.