Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Mel Roberts


Mel Roberts was one of the early pioneers of Southern California physique photography. Born in Toledo, Ohio, on August 26, 1923, he was drafted into military service in 1943 and served as a cameraman in the South Pacific for the U.S. Air Force.  Afterwards around 1950, Mel began to study film at the University of Southern California.

In 1953 Mr. Roberts worked on Herbert Biberman's movie Salt of the Earth, a story that focused on Mexican-American miners who were striking against a giant corporation. It became the only motion picture blacklisted in American film history, being produced by a number of film artists tagged/blacklisted for their membership in the Communist Party or other leftist organizations. The film starred actor Will Geer (a blacklisted bisexual actor who decades later played the grandfather on television's family drama The Waltons).


Mel's photography was first published in Young Physique magazine in 1963. Unlike other physique photographers, Roberts only took pictures of men he knew personally.  Everything fell into place: The dreamy Southern California locations, enthusiastic and uninhibited young men ready to pose, and a gifted photographer who understood the beauty of male nudity, all combined into some powerful imagery.  Using Rolleiflex cameras from the 1950's through to the early 1980's, Mel took an estimated 50,000 photographs of around 200 models. Like other pioneers, Roberts had to build his own color lab to develop prints since no lab would process his film because of the content. The transparencies he sent to Eastman Kodak were returned to him with holes punched through the crotches of the models!   Blonde Sean Patrick probably became Mel's most famous model,epitomizing the Southern California lifestyle for thousands of men living all around the world.
Sean Patrick circa 1968

Sexuality in the late 1960's was, by Robert's own accounts, open and fun.   He often had a handful of young men staying at his home and many of them had girlfriends who were also welcome at the house.  Roberts' photographs highlight the experimental openness and uninhibited attitudes of the late 1960's and early 1970's. When not at the beach, many of the photographs in his books, magazines and videos were shot in the house and around the back garden. 
Bobby Kroop circa 1973.
His portraits of young men, between the ages of 18 and 25, were "at the epitome of their development" as he characterized them, and Mel became immediately successful in the U.S. and Europe.  They made Mel one of the most prominent male photographers of the time.  In 1977 the Los Angeles Police Department raided his home and studio and confiscated his cameras, negatives, letters and mailing list. It's reported that the LAPD refused to return Roberts's property, even though no charges were ever filed against him. On August 26, 2007 Mel Roberts pasted away in Los Angeles, California. At the time of his death, he resided in the same home in Bel Air in which he lived in for over 50 years.

Gradually over time, interest in his work grew stronger and today what remains of his collection is considered highly collectible by vintage erotica aficionados who can afford it.  Roberts's photography is now represented in galleries in New York, Los  Angeles, Hollywood, and Palm Springs.  One of the most avid collectors is said to be Sir Elton John, who acquired  almost sixty images for his personal collection.  For the rest of us, the Fotofactory Press published two books of Mr. Roberts’ work, which are currently out of print but available in their original sealed condition: Volume One California Boys: Photographs from the 1960s and 1970s and Volume Two, The Wild Ones.  Fotofactory also still issues Roberts Original Photos Gallery Prints (Printed and Signed by Mel Roberts), and a series of blank greeting cards
Don Anderson, circa 1973


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