Prince of pinups still reigns

Times Staff Writer

First he invented his own brand of glamour photography. Then he built a canyon studio as a backdrop for his pictures. And finally he designed his own camera to snap them with. No wonder photographer Peter Gowland developed into what many consider the prince of pinups.

Hundreds of beautiful women have posed in front of his Gowlandflex camera wearing little more than smiles. Generations of photographers have tried to imitate the exuberance and fun depicted in sun-drenched Gowland glamour shots. It was Gowland, they say, who took the cheesiness out of cheesecake by giving swimsuit and figure photography a distinctive Southern California look.

Starting with the casual recruitment of pretty women at the beach, Gowland spent more than half a century turning cute girls into calendar models. And he has done it with his wife of 62 years at his side for every click of the shutter.


“Women like working with us because of Alice,” Gowland says, grinning at his wife as he swivels a huge overhead umbrella light reflector that is built into the ceiling of his airy photo studio.

But now, with a shrinking demand for pinup girls, Peter Gowland is reinventing himself at age 88.

With the usual help of his wife, he has set up to showcase and market some of their past work. (They have more than 100,000 negatives cataloged in office cabinets.)

He still manufactures his Gowlandflex cameras in his home workshop. Resembling a supersized Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex, the camera uses 4-by-5-inch sheet film and, at 8 pounds, is light enough to handhold in the surf. But it produces high-resolution negatives and color transparencies that generally satisfy the pickiest magazine cover printer.

Gowland has made about 1,500 cameras -- including aerial and 8-by-10-inch studio models. Most have gone for governmental and advertising work and to large-format photographers such as Yousuf Karsh and Annie Leibovitz.

He is also creating two new cameras. “I’m making things other people don’t make. These are going to be the world’s lightest 5-by-7 and 8-by-10 cameras. They’ll be 3 pounds and 4 1/2 pounds,” he says. “They’ll be perfect for backpackers who want to get out and hike and take the kind of pictures Ansel Adams took.”


The workshop and sun-drenched studio are off the living room of the Pacific Palisades home that the couple built in 1955 in Rustic Canyon. A small stream flows year-round out front. In back, the studio’s glass wall opens to a swimming pool nestled against a woodsy hillside.

Rustic Canyon Creek has been used as the setting for hundreds of magazine and calendar photos by the Gowlands. So have the pool and the whitewashed studio -- whose main wall seamlessly curves from a white terrazzo floor into a high, white-plaster ceiling.

Few readers or calendar gazers have probably paid much notice, though. If they weren’t admiring unknown models, they were enjoying Gowland pictures of emerging actresses Ann-Margret, Joey Heatherton, Anna Kashfi, Tina Louise, Yvette Mimieux and Julie Newmar.

The Gowlands were among the first to photograph Jayne Mansfield, who sent the pair thank-you notes after her sessions with them. Actress Joan Collins patiently posed for them at the beach, in their studio and finally on their pool patio. A young Raquel Welch remained good-natured as she attracted a crowd while posing at Will Rogers State Beach.

As their fame grew, celebrities such as Rock Hudson, Deborah Kerr, Rhonda Fleming and Robert Wagner passed through the Gowlands’ studio. Book publishers came calling too, commissioning what would eventually total 25 photography books written by Alice and illustrated by Peter.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Gowlands shot 10 photo layouts and four covers for Playboy magazine. They calculate their photos have been used on more than 1,000 other magazine covers as well.


Whirlwind romance

The Gowlands started in glamour photography by accident.

Peter, the son of character actor Gibson Gowland, was working as a movie extra and stand-in when he met Alice in 1941. He was 25 and was focusing on becoming a cinematographer. But in the meantime, he was sneaking a Rolleiflex still camera into the studio in his lunch bag and snapping portfolio shots of fellow actors during production breaks.

Alice Adams, 21, was a Lockheed Aircraft secretary. She and Peter hit it off when one of her boyfriends asked him to take a picture of her.

“Our first date was Dec. 7, 1941, the day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor,” Peter says. “It was a date that lived in infamy.” Alice made it clear from the start that any real intimate relationship would have to be based on marriage. So on their second date two weeks later they eloped to a Las Vegas wedding chapel called the Hitching Post.

“We didn’t know each other very long, but I could see he was inventive,” recounts Alice.

“She married me because she thought I’d last a long time because I never really worked. I don’t figure I’ve ever worked a day in my life,” he retorts. “Everything I do is fun.”

As World War II escalated, Gowland worked as a North American Aviation photographer before being drafted. To his new wife’s dismay, he spent his last day before shipping out with the Army Air Corps snapping photographs of a pretty girl in a bathing suit at the beach.

Instead of tearing up the girl’s pictures after he left for overseas, Alice sold three of them for $200 each to two magazines and a calendar. In Peter’s absence, his glamour-photography career was launched.


After the war, Alice became even more caught up in her husband’s photo work, particularly after Peter’s first attempt at nude photography turned into a disaster.

“The picture showed too much,” he admits.

“I took it to a camera store in Hollywood across from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the owner stuck it in the window and he was arrested. Ever since then I’ve never wanted to take a picture like that. There’s a fine line, or not so fine a line, between porno and pinups.”

From then on, Alice was looking over his shoulder to make certain that the pictures were tasteful. She was uncomfortable at first with her husband being surrounded by beautiful, sometimes naked women, he says. She agrees.

“It was very difficult. But then I saw that I wasn’t jealous of the models, ever. We all got along.... They liked it seeing a married couple,” Alice says.

The pinup business was brisk after the war. But it wasn’t always lucrative. Alice handled picture sales and always requested a photo credit line for her husband. Self-promotion was important as he hustled up business in portraiture and things such as cat show photography.

While he set up the large-format color camera demanded in those days by publishers, she helped models find their most flattering pose and watched for flyaway hair and flapping clothing.


“My presence was definitely reassuring to the girls. When we started we were like sisters. Then it got to be like I’m the older sister, and pretty soon I’m like the mother and then I’m the grandmother,” she says. “Even as time went on there was always rapport there.”

A ‘classy’ approach

The wholesome-looking young women sought by the Gowlands for their glamour pictures were something new for the pinup business, which, before the 1950s, seemed dominated by tawdry shots of badly lighted models leering seductively at the camera.

“You look at Gowland pictures and they’re having fun. There’s a sense of joie de vivre. They’re not titillating nudes; they’re classy,” says veteran magazine photographer and author Lou Jacobs Jr. of Cathedral City. “Peter and Alice brought a respectability to the nude that a lot of art photographers found contagious.”

Los Angeles photographer Jim McHugh, whose work ranges from celebrity portraiture to architectural images, says Gowland’s early photos were a precursor to the magazine swimsuit-edition photography that is popular today. And the large-camera, carefully composed look favored by Gowland 50 years ago is again in vogue among some photographers, McHugh says. “Even though it’s shot at the beach, it’s extremely stylized, every hair is perfect. Everything is perfect in a Gowland picture -- it’s very conceptual.”

As Gowland’s fame spread, young women began seeking him out and begging to be photographed. Finnish-born MeiLing Gordon von Hellens, now a Scottsdale, Ariz., grandmother, was one of them. She calls the work she did for them in the early 1960s the most rewarding of her career.

“Peter and Alice both gave the feeling that they knew the pictures were going to be perfect. And they were. He was never rushed -- he was relaxed, like you were a guest. She would turn the chair, arrange it. It was like the two of them read each other’s mind,” Von Hellens says. “I worked with hundreds of photographers, and they’re the only ones I stayed in contact with.”


There are more than 1,200 black-and-white negatives of model Barbara Osterman Neill in the Gowlands’ files. She posed for them over a four-year period in the early 1950s. Like many other models, she also stayed in touch with the couple. “The two of them haven’t changed a bit. They’re still going full speed ahead,” she says.

Neill, of Ashland, Ore., gets a laugh out of many of today’s glamour photos. “Models now look so pained. They’re so sexy that they look like they’re going to pop.” Neill designed her own high-leg-cut swimsuits to wear in Gowland’s photos. One of her suits was even borrowed by fledgling actress Jayne Mansfield for an eye-catching photo credited with launching her career.

Effect on daughters

The Gowlands’ two daughters say they enjoyed the creativity that flowed through the modern, glass-walled home. Still, living there was sometimes a challenge for the Gowland girls.

“It was very emotional growing up thinking I wasn’t beautiful enough, compared with the models my father photographed,” remembers Mary Lee Gowland, now a 54-year-old poet in Coarsegold, Calif.

Daughter Ann Macmillan, 61, who works in public television in San Francisco, took in stride the celebrities who popped in and out of the house. And she paid little attention to the models -- although all of her friends were well aware that her father photographed women for Playboy.

“I was never sure if the boys who came over were coming to see me or whether they were coming over hoping to see the girls my father worked with,” says Macmillan.


Between photo sessions, Peter disappeared into his workshop, building props for pictures and equipment for behind the scenes.

His models loved the hidden foot supports that he fashioned out of wood to let them seemingly stand on their toes for long periods without tiring.

His favorite prop was an overhead trough he used to simulate a waterfall backdrop when its contents were poured behind models in the pool or the canyon stream.

Alice and Peter also became known for their environmental work in the canyon. In the ‘60s, the pair shot a documentary that helped dissuade flood control officials from turning the canyon stream into a concrete channel. Later they filmed “Save Will Rogers Beach,” which helped sink a proposal to reroute part of Pacific Coast Highway onto an offshore causeway. In the ‘80s they helped lead a campaign to block oil drilling in the area.

These days, the couple have scaled back on their glamour photography. A few years ago they finished a 40-year association with the Ridge Tool Co., shooting models for calendars seen on garage and workshop walls worldwide.

But even before that, the feminist movement had punctured the pinup business. “The jobs just fell away. Every editor said the same thing: It was the women in the department who put the kibosh on it and said no,” Alice says.


And it’s probably just as well.

“Glamour photography today is completely different. It’s so much more explicit than we would ever have even thought of going. It’s become just horrible -- women are doing poses we would never photograph.”