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.
Meanwhile, the magazine and its distinctive fold- out became a cultural phenomenon. Attacked by the self-righteous and right-thinking burghers of the 1950s, they offered Hefner the public forum he wanted to promote the magazine and his message of more rational attitudes toward politics, religion and sex.
Sure, the editorial content was top shelf; Playboy paid more than any other magazine, and as a result, featured the best writers with the finest fiction and outstanding stories on sports, politics and current affairs along with their signature interviews. But, to Playboy’s detractors, the prime evil was always those images. Such opposition was frequent and ferocious, but in retrospect had little effect.
For all the controversy, Playboy has a remarkably clean rap sheet. Legal attacks have been few and and largely futile. When the June 1963 issue featured a story on the movie Promises, Promises and reprinted a photo of a mostly nude Jayne Mansfield sharing a bed with a fully clothed Tommy Noonan, the high moral authorities of the Chicago Police confiscated the newsstand copies. Hefner was arrested and tried on an obscenity charge, but walked when the jury hung 7-5.
The legal constraints were often comical. At one point each Centerfold had to be shot in four versions: nude for the world market, a version without pubic hair for the Japanese market, and a lingerie-clad shot for the Playmate poster, since poster distributors wouldn’t handle nude images and, for a brief period, a one-breasted version for Brazil where two breasts were judged obscene, but one was not. They didn’t indicate which.
What the public obsession with the content of the photos obscured, buried under ruminations of the morality of revealing one breast or two, was a passionate concern about the execution of the photos. The magazine’s success was funding a relentless drive for technical perfection, starting with a camera no one else would think to use for glamour.
Arny Freytag recalls, “At Brooks, all student work was done with a 4×5 view camera. I learned a lot, but it was a tough device to work with. I assumed that once I left school, I’d never use one of those again.” Instead, Freytag found Playboyusing the granddaddy of his 4×5, the Toyo-View 8×10. “Nobody else was using 8x10s by then,” Freytag says, “and certainly not for people shots.” But Hefner was obsessed with the quality of the Centerfold. He personally approved each photo and, working with his “enforcer” editor at Playboy’s Studio West, Marilyn Grabowski, he imposed a perfectionist’s regime, rejecting photo after photo if it didn’t pass muster. “The attitude was that everything had to be the absolute best and the image absolutely perfect. We would spend a week in the studio getting that one Centerfold shot, going through stacks of Polaroids and sheet film, and if one hair, one fold of a bed sheet, was out of place, we did it over,” says Freytag. On one legendary shoot, the Collinson twins (October 1970), photographer Dwight Hooker went through 780 sheets of 8×10 Ektachrome before Hef approved the image. It didn’t matter. The budget was unlimited: only quality counted.
Meanwhile, the 8×10 imposed rigorous requirements of its own. That huge film plane created a vanishingly small depth of field and small apertures, at least f/16 or smaller, were mandatory. “I can remember having trouble with large breasted girls getting both her eyes and breasts in tight focus,” says Freytag. Additionally, at those apertures, ASA 64 Ektachrome demanded enormous amounts of light. Freytag is known for assembling elaborate lighting tableaus for his centerfolds, often using thirty or more strobes. But even 30 normal strobe heads would not yield enough light for the 8×10. By using bi-tubed strobes and dual 2500 watt Balcar AC packs behind each tube, Freytag could just barely reach f/22. “It was really something when you shot off 150,000 or 200,000 watts of strobe light. You could feel the wiring vi- brate. Even then,” he says, “bellows compensation would often force us to open up to f/16.”
But the quality of the images is undeniable. Look at one of those Ektachromes with a loupe and the tonality is breathtaking. You get the feeling you are peeking in this girl’s window. That quality is Hefner’s obsession and a source of considerable pride for Playboy. Freytag, a man of easy manner and a quick smile, hardens his look when people suggest that the Centerfolds are a product of extensive retouching, the ubiquitous accusation of “airbrushing.” “They may remove a skin blemish here, or a broken fingernail there,” says Freytag, “but the images from my camera can run directly in the magazine. We don’t change body shapes or use masks to alter the lighting. Nor do we use lots of body makeup. That’s all done the way it should be done, with lights, in the camera.”
Today, remnants of President Reagan’s Meese Commission and attacks from the Religious Right linger. It is still unusual to see Playboy, even in a closed wrapper, available at supermarkets, thus denying Playboy the impulse purchase. But for now, the culture wars have subsided. No longer do photographers need to be masters of persuasion, gently coaxing the clothes off their models. Instead, hundreds of willing young women flood Playboy’s open castings, often with stories of seeing their father’s Playboys and wanting to be one of those girls that everyone thought was so beautiful.
Photographically, Playboy today is in a whole new world. Given this technically demanding climate, it isn’t surprising that the transition to digital was slow. Steve Wayda, with whom Freytag shares Centerfold duties, was an early adopter of digital, but Hefner was cautious. “Let other people per- fect it first,” he argued. But ultimately, when it became evident that 8×10 had no future, the magazine began to change. They tested, but never used, a 5×7 format. Instead Freytag changed to a Fuji 6×7 film camera which he used for two years. His shift to digital began with a Hasselblad with a Phase One back, but he has recently concluded that the newest generation of full-frame 35mm DSLRs have passed the quality threshold. “The medium format image will look better on a monitor, and if you’re making prints for an art gallery, maybe, maybe, it would make a difference, but on the printed page of a magazine, it won’t make any difference at all,” he says.
Now that professional equipment is within a price range of more photographers, there is a huge demand for information about creating Playboy- style images. Freytag has joined with current and former Playboy photographers Jarmo Pohjaniemi and David Mecey to form Shoot The Centerfold, an educational venture offering hands-on workshops to the public on how to create the real thing. This is not something one could envision when an 8×10 view was the camera of choice.
So the heritage of quality seems safe. Tight budgets and the persistent woes of the magazine industry have challenged Playboy, but the arrival of digital has been a financial godsend. Those multi- week Centerfold shoots are now done in a week. Thousands of Polaroids and hundreds of 8×10
Ektachromes have been replaced by digital everything. Prepress was brought in-house four years ago, and separations are performed and sent directly to Quad Graphics in Wisconsin for printing. Although the magazine is now printed by offset, the centerfold and some pictorial pages continue to be produced using the superior, and more costly, rotogravure process.
It’s a different world, but the guardians of Centerfold quality seem as determined as ever. It may now be easier to make corrections, but Hefner still scrutinizes every Centerfold with the same eye, and the same standards, as yesterday.