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David Hurles

Criminal Connoisseur

A collateral pleasure of making TASCHEN books is the artist friendships. When I began The Big Penis Book there was one photographer I was determined to track down, a contributor to the gay magazines from my Leg Show and JUGGS publisher, a man of mystery known as Old Reliable.

The editors shared each new photo submission from him, largely black and white prints, while everyone else in the 1990s shot color. The subjects were singular: tough young men bluntly addressing the camera, prison tattoos and missing teeth, dirty hands, challenging stares. The angles were often low, the men making fists or raising the middle “fuck you” finger. No one really knew what to make of it; some were repelled, and some were riveted. As one editor said, “I’d love to hook up with them if there was an armed guard at the door.” As I discovered 10 years later, the armed guard was a good idea.

When I asked my contacts how to find Old Reliable in 2007 I heard he was dead, in prison, insane, a recluse who spoke to no one. I finally found one who not only confirmed he was alive but had a phone number. David Hurles answered on the third ring, charming, friendly, and intelligent. It turned out he lived within walking distance of TASCHEN’s Hollywood offices, and we met the next day.

We hear of love at first sight; less about friendship at first interview. David had thoroughly researched his sexual obsession and explained it in frightening yet somehow hilarious anecdotes. He was attracted to criminals from grade school, when he courted the tough boys and bullies. He preferred psychopaths and murderers and developed guidelines for minimizing risk when dealing with them, though there was no way to eliminate risk; he’d been threatened, beaten, and robbed many times. He found his models on the street, usually hustling gay men for sex, though they were overwhelmingly straight. He photographed them wherever he was living at the time, never afraid to bring them home, or afraid but doing it anyway, as fear was part of the thrill. He had to move a lot. His most famous location was a house with white carpets and a neon palm tree in exclusive Lake Hollywood, bought around 1990 when he was making a quarter million a year selling his photos, videos and audio tapes via mail order.

The audio tapes were inspired by his models bragging about their criminal adventures. He’d leave them alone in a room with a tape recorder, encourage them to say anything, and promise he wouldn’t listen until after they’d left. There are at least 1000 cassette tapes, some banal, some absolutely chilling, with no way of telling violent fantasy from lived experience.

The repeated elements in David’s photographs are all things that arouse him personally; he never pandered to clients. He liked eye contact. He liked men to loom above him. He liked muscle poses. He liked hands clenched into fists. He liked hands giving the finger. He liked men smoking cigars. He liked wrestling and fighting. He liked anything that struck fear in his heart.

David kept daily diaries, profiling every model in exciting and terrifying detail. His affection for even the worst was obvious in entries such as, “A very angry guy; looked grimy and kept things very tense. Splendid balls.” In others he casually dropped names: “He had been ‘dumped’ with a week’s hotel rent paid by Tom Ewell (star of The Seven Year Itch) who thought he was a dangerous powder keg.” He followed their criminal cases, collecting newspaper clippings, writing letters to parole boards, and corresponding when they were inevitably imprisoned. He kept copies of every letter; those sent to one model fill a 30-pound crate discovered in his storage unit.

David’s devotion to his models was his undoing. The man who’d dined with Gore Vidal and inspired John Waters lost his house paying criminals’ debts. He lost his cars and cameras to their theft. He was arrested himself when he got too entangled. Friends warned his fetish had become his life; he didn’t dispute it.

By the time David and I met he lived with a young criminal in a single room packed with the relics of his once thriving career. Even so reduced, he spoke lovingly of them all and expressed regret only when he spied a likely model on the street and had no camera.

David suffered a massive stroke in 2009 and now lives in a Hollywood nursing home. I’ve been caring for him and his archive ever since. Living with his half million images, his 1000+ tapes and his astounding diaries makes his unique vision more vivid as his body and mind slip away.

This Pride Month please give a thought to the artists and photographers you’ve loved. Gay artists often have no family to preserve their archives, and universities are becoming less willing to take collections construed pornographic. The archive of another Big Penis Book photographer, Craig Calvin Anderson, was thrown in the trash following his death in 2014. This is no GoFundMe, just a suggestion to check up on your favorites. Google usually works, and if you want to know more about David Hurles, check out the revised edition of The Big Penis Book, available now, or email me here.

Do you have comments or questions? Email Dian at askdian@taschen.com