Personal photograph album and scrapbook of 1950s bodybuilder Alex Pilin
Pittsburgh: [1950s]. Oversize post-bound photo album with a very 1960s floral sateen base, 13 x 14.75 inches.  pages containing 157 original photographs, primarily black and white, and around 25 press clippings (in bits and pieces), and some stray ephemera. The album comes from Pilin’s estate; it lacks a front cover and suffers from the acid discoloration typical with this kind of “magnetic” album, as well as some instances of creasing and other handling wear. It is housed in a buffered enclosure, but should soon be destined for more archival-safe housing or framing, depending on the wishes of its next steward.
For now, the irregularities of the object speak to its remarkable character. The photographs run the gamut of genres from vernacular to beefcake, with no particular style championed over another. From Alex’s perspective, the aesthetic of the images was secondary to that of the body they document.
Alex Pilin was a hugely accomplished weightlifter and bodybuilder from Pittsburgh who held many athletic records and national titles (not to mention the 1953 Mr. Pittsburgh crown). This album documents his physical development, successes, and brief celebrity. It includes events from the late 1940s-1960s, but concentrates primarily on the mid-1950s, when his success landed him features in magazines like Vim and Health and Strength. The album contains original prints of the photographs that appeared in those articles, including many by noted beefcake photographer, Frank Collier. Collier was based out of Erie PA and regularly photographed Pilin. There are several studio sessions, including one with a sailor theme that diverges from the otherwise strictly-physique shoots.
Most of the photos are unidentified, and there may be some other uncredited photographer’s gems among them, but the personal photographs are the most compelling ones. There are several series of photos he’s taken to record his physical development as a teenager, before the professional shots. Many are taken outdoors, flexing or posed with a barbell (or, in one case, a cow) and are evocative at times of Don Whitman’s physique photos set against Colorado’s stunning natural scenery–though in Pittsburgh, that scenery included steel mills in the background.
The early photographs are also remarkable for their views of Pilin alongside his peers, practicing at the gym and flexing by the riverside. It’s clear from some images–like a 1949 school weightlifting team photo–that some of the boys had more serious ambitions (and natural aptitude) for the sport than others. Those peers would have often been on the other side of the camera, and appear themselves in some goofy snapshots. A photo by the river shows them crowded around Pilin, imitating his strongman poses in loving mockery. A photo of Alex with a drawn-on mustache drives home the endearingly juvenile, “boys being boys” atmosphere of his personal photos. Even among serious competitors and photos from competitions, these idiomatic pictures show the camaraderie that is usually absent from individual-driven photos of weightlifting and bodybuilding.
Pilin’s scrapbook is foremost about his physical development, successes, and celebrity—but the importance of community is conveyed through photos and clippings that reflect his ongoing involvement with the Pittsburgh Boys’ Club and the local Y.M.C.A. He especially honors the role of mentors from those organizations, like renowned weightlifting official Wilbur J. Smith. In interviews, Pilin claimed not to have a dedicated coach or ascribe to a single fitness regime, despite the fact that his era, not unlike ours, was replete with fitness celebrities advertising programs to help lifters gain and tone muscle. He seemed to adopt a generally positive “do what works for you” attitude, but eagerly shared what he knew about health and fitness. He eventually earned a degree in naturopathy in 1977 and continued to be involved with community organizations throughout his life.
Among the odd bits of ephemera are Pilin’s 1947 junior high athletic award, his first accolade recorded in the album, followed shortly by his blue ribbon from the 1952 “Official U.S.A. Wt.Lifting Championships, Olympic Tryouts and Mr. America Contest,” held that summer in New York, a range of accomplishments indicative of the scope of the album itself. Although the album is not strictly chronological, it does present a pattern of reflection—beginning with his private endeavors and personal self-documentation, to photos with teams, to his period of magazine features and glamour photos, and then back to his community ties. Despite its haphazard state, the album retains the hand (and a few hairs) of its subject and maker, imbuing it with a sustained immediacy that is impossible to manufacture.