By Richard Knight Jr.
On the rooftop deck of a $4.5 million home that looks like it belongs in Aspen rather than Lincoln Park, model Kurt Merrill (height: 6 feet; shirt: 15 1/2 by 34; waist: 32; hair: brown; suit: 40 regular; shoe: 11; inseam: 33; eyes: blue) is taking his shirt and pants off and changing into a pair of ripped, faded denim overalls. He's preparing to be shot as part of an ongoing series called "Male Nudes" by former model turned photographer Jennifer Meltzer (height: 5 feet 6½ inches; dress: 5/6: waist: 23; hair: brown; shoe: 6½; eyes: hazel).
Despite the name of the series--photos of which were shown recently at the Mars Gallery and are currently on view at the Mashed Potato Club--Meltzer doesn't really shoot guys in the buff. "I think the show was called that to capture attention and excite an audience," she says. "People were excited when they saw that they weren't nude." Meltzer has done a couple of butt shots, but she's much more interested in "elegant poses, beautiful muscled bodies, and no frontal views. I don't think frontal views are pertinent to making my pictures look pretty."
"Pretty" and "beautiful" are favorite Meltzer adjectives. Taking pictures of pretty, beautiful men is one of her favorite pastimes. Now she's directing Merrill into position. He stands in a corner of the wooden deck, holding a bucket over his head. Meltzer asks him to remove a silver cross from around his neck. Her nine-year-old son Nick (height: 4 feet 9 inches; shirt: 10; waist: 25½; hair: brown; suit: 12; shoe: 3½; eyes: brown) is holding her cameras and a plastic bag filled with extra film. He has modeled since he was a baby and has appeared with Merrill in several father-son advertisements for Meijers, a chain of department stores. Nick says he's accompanied his mother on "about ten of the shoots--all of them except when I'm back in school."
Now he hands his mother the camera and she begins shooting. Her long hair is pulled back under a Mars Gallery baseball cap. She wears a trench coat, a white blouse, black cigarette pants, white socks, and black shoes. A gold necklace dangles as she leans over to shoot Merrill, who pulls his pants down to reveal his thighs. "Good, good. God but you've got such a beautiful face--let's see your face. You are so beautiful. Beautiful," Meltzer says as she clicks away. Merrill has been modeling for ten years, but now says he's "being groomed to be on a soap. I'm taking classes and stuff. I really like film."
Nick and his younger brother, four-year-old Gregory (height: 3 feet 7 inches; size: 4 or 5; hair: brown; waist: 20; shoe: 11½ child; eyes: brown), have seen this before and are quickly bored. They glance over at the House of Teak and, in the distance, Treasure Island, and then to Meltzer's next subject, who's standing nearby checking out his reflection in the window. Michael Gautsch (height: 6 feet 1 inch; suit: 44 regular to long; shirt: 16 to 16½ by 34; waist: 31 to 32; hair: blond; inseam: 34; shoe: 11; eyes: gray) has been modeling for about a year. He wears black boots, blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and a black leather vest. A brush with red-tipped spikes is stuck in his back pocket. His hair is shoulder length, and he flips it now and then. In the midst of a karate chop, Gregory looks up at him and asks, "How old are you?" "Twenty-five," Gautsch answers, showing a lot of white teeth. In the background, Meltzer says to her subject: "Yeah, yeah, real sexy." "You want the other camera, mom?" Nick asks.
Tiny Gregory, dressed in an orange woolly Gap jacket and printed pants and clutching a stuffed dinosaur named BJ, spins around and around. Coming to a stop, he again addresses Gautsch. "I know what a muscle is." He holds his arm in a mini-Popeye pose. "Me too," Gautsch replies. "Wanna see a muscle?" Both kids say yes and he cranks up his huge biceps. The boys make appreciative noises.
It's now 6 PM, and Meltzer has finished with Merrill. Gautsch takes off his vest, shirt, and watch. Meltzer directs him to a corner, out of the wind. "Do you want my abs flexed?" he asks as she poses him against a wall. He unzips his pants and rolls them down to his underwear. "Oh God, oh God, oh God," Meltzer says, seeing Gautsch through the camera lens. "This is so beautiful. Great. Nice. Beautiful. Yes! Yes! Yes! Let's see your beautiful flat stomach." Earlier Gautsch had commented, "I've worked out for eight years--four to five days a week. My girlfriend looks forward to the day that I can indulge and have a pizza from Uno's. I'm reexamining my goals. My body is very important right now. I'd like to be the next Calvin Klein model."
Meltzer is finishing up. "Michael, a model is an actor," she directs. "Think about what you're doing at all times. Do something down there." Gautsch puts his hands on his lower hips, close to his crotch, and flips his face up toward the sun, which has momentarily appeared from behind the clouds. "Very sexy, very beautiful," Meltzer comments. Later, back home, Meltzer sums up the session. "God was with us today--it was a good day, a beautiful day. Beautiful, beautiful. It's all going to be beautiful."
The beauty part began with her brother James. "He's beautiful and he has always taken great care of himself, a real athlete. I've always been a real athlete and it started from the brother and the boyfriends and the men. I just love men. I don't necessarily like a big male body, but I like a very chiseled, muscular body. I like one that works out. I know how much time and effort goes in to make a male body perfect, and I appreciate the dedication that goes into that and the fact that men can really change their bodies if they want to. I also appreciate male bodies that can be graceful. There is a narcissistic quality to this, yes--I think so. But that goes back to my whole history of being a model."
The daughter of Albert and Frances Pogats, Meltzer grew up in Jonesville, Michigan. She remembers her parents as "always doing things together that were very athletic. I don't care if it was a Sunday race walk or badminton every night till we dropped or riding bicycles until we couldn't pedal any farther." Her father was the head of maintenance at the state prison in Jackson, and her mother was a school bus driver, a librarian, "you name it." There are two sisters, Joan and Judy. Jennifer is the youngest. She had always wanted to model and in the mid-70s, after graduating from high school, she headed for New York.
"The first week I was in Manhattan I was shot by WWD because I had the classic maxi trench coat on." By the time Meltzer was 21 she was modeling full-time in Chicago. "I came to visit some friends and I fell in love with the city and it was a lot closer to my family." Her modeling career was successful to the point that "by the time I was 23 I bought a nice apartment building. I mean I really made it." She was living on Astor Street and spending three or four nights a week at the Playboy mansion. Though she never dated Hefner and was never a bunny, "I was invited to everything at the mansion."
She was also invited to a workout program for models and bunnies. "Tuesday and Wednesday nights we could go to the mansion and he had an exercise class. And it was a good one--we're not talking aerobics." Working out became a regular part of her modeling routine. At 26 Meltzer spent a year commuting back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles. "Yeah, God, I did so well out there. It's one of the toughest markets in the world. But at the same time, before I left I met Robert Meltzer (height: 6 feet 1 inch; shirt: 16 1/2 by 40 regular; waist: 34; hair: brown; suit: 42 long; shoe: 11 1/2; eyes: brown). He had a very good body and he worked out like crazy. The difference between him and all the other guys I had dated is that I fell in love with him."
Meltzer's husband is an executive with Evans Incorporated, a women's fur and clothing company. The two were married after a three-year courtship and continue to work out together on a regular basis.
Everything changed on a hot summer night in 1983 in Sturgis, Michigan. Meltzer describes what happened cryptically as the memories flood back: "A husband driving past where he shouldn't have on a hill and ran right into another car. A head-on collision. Five people in that car. You could hear the yelling and screaming. My neck was broken, back broken, trunk taken out underneath the arm. Tailbone displaced. Had out-of-body experience. Lucky to be alive. Very lucky to be alive. Should've ended up like Christopher Reeve.
"In those ambulance rides they took my blood pressure like every minute and at one point it dropped so low they thought I was gone and that's when I was having the out-of-body experience. All it was was me standing over me, looking down, and I was making the decision to stay or leave. It was, 'You know what, Jennifer, you're going to be OK.' Then my blood pressure rose and that was it."
And for that brief, fleeting moment, floating overhead looking down on herself, how did her body look? Was it a beautiful body?
"You know, it's funny, but I dress really well and really cute and it was in the summer and I had on this great little Esprit outfit--little shorts and tight T-shirt--and there I was looking over that body. Perfect. Not mangled and bloody as it was. It was perfect. Weird. Uh-huh, yeah. They had to cut the stuff off me because they couldn't move my neck."
She kept the clothes as a reminder.
Meltzer had lost 12 pounds "immediately" in the accident and was down to 80-some pounds. She was placed in a striker bed for a week and a halo brace for three and a half months. She had to learn to walk again.
"I came home to a hospital bed and I had to work very hard to get my body back into shape. And doctors--you know, 'Valium's really nice'--and I'm not gonna take any drugs. I don't care how much pain I'm in. I'm going to get up and learn how to walk in this thing. And I did."
There were setbacks. "My body would become inflamed after walking, and I was bedridden again for three months until I found an osteopath that really put me back together. This was after going through all the recovery and the hard work and then a year later I couldn't move again! I thought, well, this is it--I'm just not meant to be alive." The osteopath fitted her with a device called a levitor, and without it Meltzer is certain she would be dead. The levitor weighs about seven pounds and looks somewhat like a coat hanger. It's worn around the hips and keeps "everything level."
Still, Meltzer is always in pain. This is one of the reasons she watercolors her photos--not only to make them one-of-a-kind originals but to "remove myself from the pain. It's a real distraction. I can appreciate the beautiful body in the photos even more now. I try so hard to keep my body in shape, but now a lot of the time I can't exercise as much. I can't ride a bike. I'll never be able to ski. I can't run. I can't do a lot of those things that I really wanted to do. Isn't that awful?" she says with a mournful laugh.
Meltzer began shooting pictures four years ago for the "Woman About Town" column in Today's Chicago Woman. She and her husband "used to do a lot of social stuff, but it gets harder as the kids get bigger. That's why they're on my shoots--I want to be with my guys." She still models occasionally, and all four of her sons started modeling when they "were babies." The Meltzers adopted ten-year-old John (height: 4 feet 9 inches; shirt: 10; suit: 12; waist: 25 1/2; shoe: 4 1/2; hair: blondish brown; eyes: blue) because "I was afraid of trying to have one. And let me tell you something, when I got pregnant I was so scared. Oh man. Are you kidding? I thought, I'm going to have this baby and I'm never going to be able to move again."
Before she began shooting male models, Meltzer did a series of neon signs and another of children. The passion she once felt for posing has gone into the photography. "Wait until you see these shots of Michael," she enthuses over the phone. "Oh God, it's like a pony!"
Admittedly, Meltzer is not as appreciative of the calorically challenged. "Ironically," she sighs, "I have a brother-in-law and a sister and their whole family that are so overweight. We're talking three, four hundred pounds. I can appreciate their minds but I don't appreciate their bodies. I feel sorry for them. I wish they'd take a little better care of themselves because that's got to be a real load carrying that around with them. But you know what? To each their own. If they're happy and they're loving, that's all that matters. I can't judge that. So it's not that I'm surrounded by only beautiful bodies. Some people are just blessed with a thin body. Would you rather have a thin body or would you rather be a porker?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of models by Jennie Meltzer, Photo of Jennie Meltzer by J.B. Spector.