When Arny Freytag, fresh out of Brooks Institute, joined Playboy in 1974, the Centerfold was already an institution, shepherded by photographers Mario Caselli, Ken Marcus and Richard Fegley. It was a unique photographic enterprise, a single monthly photo of a previously unknown model, taken by the best photographers available, shot with the most expensive camera, and printed on the finest magazine stock with the finest printing process. It was arguably the most famous, and most expensive, periodic photograph on earth.
The Photograph: Its History
While both its admirers and detractors, and certainly the media, were concerned with the Centerfold’s sexual content, behind the scenes, magazine founder Hugh Hefner had another obsession: to make the Centerfold the absolutely highest quality image possible.
When Hefner began the magazine in 1953, nude photos of pretty young women were a scarce commodity. A relatively small group of professional models bared all for a modest collection of calendars, barber shop “gazettes” and sunbathing or “cheesecake” magazines such as Wink, Flirt and Rogue. For most of the first year, Playboy centerfolds were pickup shots from the Baumgarth calendar, source of Tom Kelley’s shot of Marilyn Monroe on red velvet.
By August 1954 Playboy began to use freelancers Peter Gowland, Bunny Yeager, Hal Adams, Ed DeLong, Russ Meyer and Mario Casilli to produce its own images. When a Playboy employee with no modeling experience, Janet Pilgrim, was coaxed in front of the camera in July 1955 and became a huge hit, the “girl next door” theme was born. Hereafter the magazine would feature celebrities, but the Centerfold would always be previously unknown and unseen.
But this was still the 1950s, and it took specially talented photographers to find and work with such novices. In the early days, Gary Cole, Playboy’s Director of Photography recalls, “A good Centerfold photographer was one who could talk a girl out of her clothes−‘Oh, you look so lovely, just drop that down a little.’ All of our guys were good, but Pompeo Poser, Playboy’s first full-time photographer, was the master.” The distinctive elongated “gatefold” image first appeared in the March 1956 issue as a three-page foldout. (Playmate Marian Stafford is shown ripping an issue of TV Guide in half, implying she had something other than viewing in mind.)
Happy with the new format and the “girl next door” theme, Hefner began assembling unprecedented resources toward making the monthly Centerfold a photographic tour de force. Early in the 1960s he hired Posar and built Playboy’s first studio in Chicago. By the end of the decade Playboy had another studio on Sunset Drive in L.A. and a full six-bath E-6 line, the equipment used to process Ektachrome, in its Chicago headquarters, where it remained until 2006.