Tuesday, 14 March 2017


Photographer Herb Klein’s new book Lost Gay South Africa

The irrepressible Herb Klein is a pioneering male physique photographer from Zimbabwe who, after moving to South Africa in the 1970s, shot the first full-colour nude gay magazine on the continent.

I discovered Klein’s work alongside his contemporaries Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber in David Leddick’s great 1998 compendium The Male Nude, then later on DVD when screening his gay adult films Here Comes Santa and Tango City, which he directed under his porn-director name, Flash Conway.

No question, the man has an eye an eye for talent and readers will enjoy his photos of beautiful men in his newly-published photo-filled book Lost Gay South Africa. I recently sat down with Klein for a candid Q&A.

Three Dollar Bill: Why did you decide to make this book?

Herb Klein: Well I have this wealth of material gathered over many decades. So I thought I would start a Facebook page to share it with friends near and far.

Why did you call your book Lost Gay South Africa?
Photographer Herb Klein

I canvassed my membership from the Facebook page asking for name suggestions. A friend in London said how about emulating Lost Gay London, a popular Facebook page in England.

You once told me, “I’ve always been a people photographer. I picked up a camera when I was six because Dad was too drunk to take a photo.” How did you decide to become a male physique photographer?

Correction: It’s true that dad was a little unsteady when taking family pictures with the Kodak Box Brownie after a whiskey or two so I took up the task.

The male physique photography came about because of the very strict laws prevailing in South Africa at the time regarding the importing of any adult books, films or magazines from abroad. The law didn’t say that one could not create materials locally. We only had the Publications Act which covered the prohibition of “obscene materials” without actually being clear on what exactly constituted obscene material.

I tested this in court once when in my own defense after having some of my “smuggled” stuff seized. I told the young lady prosecutor that as the law stood the definitions were vague and subjective. She was trying to get an admission out of me that some of the magazines were pornographic and I was not going to budge. She even pulled opened a page showing a close up of an erection and said, “Well what about this then?”

I said, “No, it’s not pornographic.”

“What is it then?” she asked.

Well, I said,  it resembles medical photography. It’s not pornographic.

The handsome young magistrate was extremely amused and kept asking to look at the materials. Finally the case was thrown out and I even got to keep some of the confiscated stuff. After that I approached anyone I wanted for a shoot and most were delighted to strip off for the camera.

You have an eye for capturing male beauty. What is it you look for in a model?

Well youth is more photogenic and I prefer the natural boy next door look. Not too buffed. No shaving of body hair. Latterly the craze for overdoing tattoos and totally shaved pubes completely destroys the subliminal sexiness inherent in the natural look.

You moved from Zimbabwe to South Africa in the 1970s and began shooting male-physique calendars and mail-order photo sets in a region where homo-erotica was not permitted. What was it like for you to shoot the first full-colour gay nude magazine on the continent, as well as launch the modeling careers of many black men in South Africa?
Photo from Lost Gay South
(Herb Klein) 

I left Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) for South Africa in the early 1970s. Hunk photography for me only began in the early 1980s. Before that I worked at many jobs and did a tremendous amount of traveling around the globe. My magazine called FLASH came out in the mid 1990s. I can’t say that I launched the careers of many black men. There certainly were a few who took my advice and got work in fashion.

My FLASH magazine was enthusiastically embraced in South Africa. It was pioneering and so I did not get rich from that. To many who lived in small towns it was a lifeline. This was before the days of the Internet.

What was gay life like in South Africa for you in the 1980s and 1990s?

For me it was a ball. I have lots of pictures in my book and anecdotes from people who lived through it.

Was gay life segregated along colour lines back then?

Officially there were laws which kept the different groups apart but these were largely ignored in the LGBT community. I can never remember a person of colour – as the euphemism went – being thrown out of a club because they were black. In my book I do have pictures of a variety of hot people.

There are a lot of changes in the present time and I am not sure that I am qualified to evaluate. I think that it is becoming generic and interchangeable with a Western model. The Internet and all its attractions are here, and black men here are driving expensive cars and wearing designer clothing. There has been an exodus of an entire generation as opportunities for a young white male are dramatically reduced due to an aggressive affirmative-action policy and quotas in the work place. So this has bred many entrepreneurs who are doing well for the most part in spite of the challenges posed by a high crime rate and a kleptocracy in government.

Your book includes audio from Granny Lee. Who is Granny Lee and why was she important?
Granny Lee (Photo by Herb Klein)

Granny Lee was a much beloved gender bender disco icon of the 1980s. She was flamboyant, could swear like a sailor and was kind and funny and entertaining. Interestingly, she was not white. I have a huge section of her in my book including a recording of an interview I did months before she died.

Did you lose a lot of friends to HIV/AIDS?

I lost my dearest friend in 1987. Yes there were others who were lost. The old days were great. I am a different person now and have a better filter to keep the psychopaths out. I live in the moment.

What is like to have your work included alongside such other seminal photographers as Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber in the essential 800-page book The Male Nude by David Leddick?

It was flattering and really boiled down to luck. I believe there were countless other photographers who were equally deserving.

One of your adult-film / model discoveries was Jorge Schmeda – later better-known as porn star Max Schutler – in Buenos Aires in 2005 when you cast him in your movie TANGO CITY. What was he like, and what are your thoughts on his recent death?

Jorge was a sweetie and I knew the moment I met him that he had star power. I wish I had done more films with him but my Hollywood distributor “was unable to generate sufficient money from my eminently bankable star” and, despite Jorge’s entreaties for me to return to Buenos Aires to shoot more films – as he had scores of cute friends anxious to star – I was unable to. TANGO CITY’s income did not cover its costs. So Jorge with my blessing approached Raging Stallion and the rest is history. Jorge’s untimely death is a sad reminder of how drugs are claiming the lives of countless people in their prime.
Jorge Schmeda (L) starred in
Tango City

Any chance Flash Conway will direct another adult film?

Definitely not. I love the work and I am a great talent but just cannot cope with the dishonesty, corruption and destruction of careers by the people in that milieu. And anyway, people nowadays want the best porn and are not willing to pay for it.

For indie filmmakers and auteurs, is the porn business viable anymore?

The porn business on its own is no longer viable.

How much do you love South Africa?

You know Africa is in some respects a tragedy. I do believe that in about 30 years from now, if the globalists are defeated, it will again be restored and be a paradise.

Will you ever return to Canada?

I can’t wait to get back to Canada and Montreal in particular.

Why is Montreal a sexy city?

You have the Quebecois. There’s your answer right there.

In a world where some 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, has the value of photography been diminished?

The digital era has brought new life to photography.

The era you captured on film in South Africa – why was it a golden era?

Not only was it a golden era in South Africa, one only has to look at the legacy of Studio 54 in Manhattan. I was in New York City in 1977 and kept meaning to go check it out but I slept through it. That was Victor Morales from Puerto Rico’s fault, but that’s another story!

Herb Klein’s Lost Gay South Africa is available as an iBook from the Apple store, and will soon be available via AMAZON.

Three Dollar Bill: Road to Cape Town

This is Herb Klein’s first Three Dollar Bill interview published in Hour magazine on December 3, 2003.

I have a soft spot for Zimbabwean photographer Herb Klein, whose work I discovered alongside his contemporaries Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber in David Leddick’s great 1998 compendium The Male Nude.
Photographer Herb Klein is featured
in The Male Nude

Mostly I love Herb because the gay gaze of his best photography and pornography is a thorn in the side of Zimbabwe’s iron-fisted dictator Robert Mugabe, who has famously called gays and lesbians “worse than pigs and dogs.”

Last week Herb, based in Montreal (and my friend) the last five years, returned to his homeland where his family’s 5,000-hectare cattle farm was seized after Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980. As recently as the mid-’90s Zimbabwe was the granary of Africa, but today, debilitated by AIDS, corruption, poverty and drought, the nation is teetering on the edge of ruin.

Herb’s mother now divides her time between neighbouring Botswana and the city of Bulawayo in northern Zimbabwe. (When I drove through Bulawayo years ago I was just jubilant the city had an ice cream parlour.)

“Bulawayo is Matabele for ‘A Place of Slaughter,’” Herb says without a trace of irony (he speaks Matabele fluently). “My family’s farm was stripped under Mugabe. We had to leave because all our neighbours were murdered. But basically all material things in life can be replaced. You have to move on.”

Herb, 50, no longer mourns the loss of his family’s farm. But he’s travelling and working in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa through next spring because he loves the land.

“I’ve always been a people photographer. I picked up a camera when I was 6 because Dad was too drunk to take a photo.”
Photo from Lost Gay South
 (Herb Klein) 

Herb’s been snapping ever since. He moved to South Africa in the 1970s and began shooting male-physique calendars and mail-order photo sets in a region where erotica – especially homo-erotica – was ruthlessly crushed.

“I shot the first full-colour gay nude magazine on the continent, I’ve launched the modelling careers of many black men in South Africa,” says Herb, whose first-ever gay porn, Here Comes Santa, filmed in Montreal this past summer, has just been released (Herb’s porn director name is the suitably cheesy Flash Conway). “Now I’m going back to shoot films of South African guys because there’s no decent gay porn films from out of there.”

There was a time when many American outlets wouldn’t buy his photos. “I tried to sell pictures of black men to The Advocate years ago and [my contact] said the photography was beautiful but the models were too National Geographic. That was the way he put it.”

Today Herb is much in demand and expanding to film. “It’s my calling card, it’s opening doors and allowing me to travel and shoot more pictures. The problem with porn today is when people focus on volume they get a checklist: blowjobs, rimming, 15 strokes and the cum shot. There are over 1,000 porn movies produced every month. It’s a billion-dollar industry. They just churn them out. They’re okay but nothing special.”

Herb makes his real.

“You need the element of chemistry. If they wouldn’t give each other a second look in the real world, they won’t have that look – unless they’re hardened hookers. So I try to partner them up with people they want to have sex with.”
Johannesburg Pride 2015
(Photo by Herb Klein) 

All said, it’s a long way since director Wakefield Poole’s pioneering 1971 gay porn Boys in the Sand (last I spoke with Poole he was a chef for Calvin Klein) and even Chi Chi LaRue, whom I met shortly after the release of his 1996 big-budget masterpiece Lost in Vegas (made for $75,000 and loosely based on Oscar-winner Leaving Las Vegas).

“If a film is well made – Chi Chi LaRue still sells films he made five or six years ago – you can sell your back catalogue,” Herb explains. “So I retain my rights. They revert back to me after a couple of years. I will have a back catalogue so one day you can download digital DVD-quality video from broadband. That’s coming.”

As for all the anti-porn moralizers, Herb says, "You’ve been to Pompeii, you’ve seen all the art in the bathhouses and brothels from two thousand years ago. It’s the same with porn today. Viewers are voyeurs. Anyone who looks at a video is to some degree. It’s human nature – we like to watch.”

Herb Klein’s Lost Gay South Africa is available as an iBook from the Apple store, and will soon be available via AMAZON.