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Roberts, Mel (b. 1923)  
 
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The vision that distinguished Roberts's work and brought him rapid success in the U.S. and Europe highlighted sexy young men casually posed against the backdrop of Southern California's stunning beaches and mountains. His models start their photo sessions fully clothed, and typically end up naked, or nearly so. This gradual progression is intended to come across to the viewer as a photographic striptease. It implies an erotic narrative and reflects the reality of their making. Sexual adventure was part of the package.

Although the models were paid, they posed less for the money than for the fun of it. Roberts recalled in a recent interview, "I tried to make it as enjoyable as I could. We'd go off to Yosemite or Idlewild or La Jolla on 2 or 3 day trips."

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Most importantly, the models were friends. "I could never just come right out and ask them to model. So very often I'd invite them over for dinner. They'd meet my friends and become a part of the 'family' before I'd take my first picture of them. When we did ultimately go out into the field they felt so comfortable with me and so relaxed it was reflected in my work."

The era of the 1960s and 1970s was by no means innocent; after all it was the time of a burgeoning sexual revolution and the Vietnam war. But it was not nearly so cynical as the current era. The openness and experimentation that characterized the years before AIDS, before sunscreen, before the freeways became permanently choked with cars, are the stuff of fond memories for the gay men who lived through it. Young men could hitch a ride to Los Angeles, go to a party, pass a few joints, take off their clothes, and have sex, just because they felt like it.

"I always had four or five guys living with me at one time. They had no prohibitions, no guilt about having sex with guys, even though most of them had girlfriends who were also frequent visitors," Roberts recalled.

But it was not all fun and games. During most of this period taking a picture of a naked man could potentially land a photographer in prison, especially if they were sent through the mail. Roberts had to build his own color lab to develop prints because no lab would process his film. The transparencies he sent to Eastman Kodak were returned to him with holes punched through the genitals of the models.

In 1977, after most of the legal prohibitions against so-called "soft core" pornography had fallen, the Los Angeles Police Department went after Roberts. Under the false charge that he was photographing underage models, they showed up at his home with a warrant. They confiscated his cameras, negatives, letters, and mailing list, which effectively put him out of business.

"We stood in the driveway in handcuffs from 10:00 in the morning to 6:00 at night as they loaded everything into a truck. I couldn't even return the money my customers had sent me because I didn't have their addresses," Roberts recalled.

A second raid followed, eighteen months later. For over a year, the LAPD refused to return Roberts's property, even though no charges were ever filed against him.

This harassment took its toll. In addition, times had changed. The California Dream that Roberts's work epitomized had faded to a memory. His photographs were considered "too tame" to be published in the ever more explicit magazines that emerged at the end of the 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, the AIDS pandemic struck. Roberts's friends started dying. He put down his camera for good.

But Roberts's story was far from over. After more than a decade of obscurity, his work was discovered by a new generation of viewers when a film producer approached him with a novel concept: putting his still photographs on video. Although he initially felt that the idea "made no sense," he agreed to give it a try.

The result was stunning. Mel Roberts' Classic Males (1994) was an unexpected success and led to three more videos. Classic Males Volume #4 was nominated for AVN Adult Video of the Year. Marketed as nostalgic valentines to a bygone era, the videos were acclaimed for their celebration of the steamy sensuality of Southern California "boys next door."

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