Wars, for all their horrors, have been known to foster a sense of brotherhood among the men who fight in them. This was certainly the case with Tom of Finland – born Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991) – who was conscripted to serve in the Finnish Army during World War II and rose to become a lieutenant, beloved by his platoon for treating them with kindness and respect. The son of a country choral master, Tom seized the opportunity to strengthen the bond between his men and created the first men’s choir in the Finnish Army.
“They had a lot of time sitting around waiting for the Russians to attack them so Tom taught all of the men in his platoon how to sing,” says Durk Dehner, president and co-founder of the Tom of Finland Foundation. “He could take on initiatives that came out of his own inspiration and yet he had this sensibility of not having to stand out and be noticed.”
With an innate ability to uplift the people through art, Tom’s courage and determination led him to break new ground in art, at great risk to his own life and livelihood. At a time when both the depiction of homosexuality and the sexual act itself were criminalised in most countries, Tom created vibrant, virile, and luminous portrayals of masculine archetypes like bikers and leathermen fearlessly flaunting their desire and sexuality.
Tom got his start in the mid-1950s drawing sumptuous illustrations for the American fitness magazine, Physique Pictorial, publishing under the name Tom of Finland, which editor Bob Mizer coined in 1957. With his work widely in demand, Tom established a mail-order business to provide his collectors with an array of images from which to select – but because homosexual imagery was deemed “obscene” and therefore illegal, Tom had to outwit the authorities in order to maintain his freedom.
“In the 1950s he made the decision that he wanted to share his art with other people and the only way he could do that was to reproduce it,” Dehner says. “We have in our archives a booklet from 1954 that comprised maybe 20 pages with two photographs per page that he made is his darkroom. He had to keep the prints 3x4 inches in size because they needed to fit inside an airplane envelope as that was the only size that customs officials would not open.”
Flying under the radar, quite literally, Tom established a cottage industry selling drawings through his mail-order business, while also working a day job at an advertising firm. What few people know is the role photography played in Tom’s artistic process. Now, the new exhibition Tom of Finland: The Darkroom, opening April 30 at Fotografiska New York, brings together photographic portraits the artist used as reference images for his legendary and hugely influential drawings. Organised in conjunction with Tom’s 101st birthday on May 8, the exhibition explores this little-known aspect of the artist’s work, which was confined to his home studio and darkroom so as to protect him from persecution, prosecution, and imprisonment.
“Tom never thought that anything other than his finished drawings would be of interest or value to the public and his collector base,” Dehner explains. “He would find a model, photograph them, develop the film, make the prints, cut the prints out and glue them into his reference binders. Then he would draw a preliminary sketch, sometimes two, and then do the finished drawing. He thought of his photography as a means to an end.”
Because he could not bring his film to a lab without risking arrest, Tom had to teach himself every aspect of photography to produce the results he wanted. “He did his own development up until close to the end when we had a lab here in the late 1980s,” Dehner says. “It’s something when you realise what they had to go through and how they had to present their work in a certain context in order to be acceptable.”
Although Tom didn’t want to stand out as an individual, he wanted his art to inform, inspire, and uplift gays and straights alike. “I wanted to influence gays and change their opinion of themselves. Gays being together feeling happy, being proud of who they are,” he once said. “And also maybe influence straight people to understand to accept the beauty and rights that gay peoples should have.”
At the end of Tom’s life, he finally received the recognition he had always dreamed. “On the news, they spoke about this character, ‘Tom of Finland,’ because a book was being released and also a documentary film,” Dehner says. “Tom called me on the phone and with very excited breath he shared how flattering that was. One of the last things he wanted out of life was to be recognised in Finland. He had stayed quiet, not because of shame but because his younger sister had pleaded with him not to come out, embarrass her, and cause her shame. She didn’t understand what he was doing in the world.”
But the world quickly came to love and embrace Tom of Finland in turn. “I’ve observed the visiting public and how they respond to his artwork,” Dehner says. “It doesn’t matter whether they are gay or straight, there seems to be this universal overtones – it made people feel good about who they were. Because his men were having such a pleasurable time in engaging with each other, there was so much passion that it made people feel good.”
Tom of Finland: The Darkroom is on view at Fotografiska New York from April 30-August 20, 2021.