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Roberts, Mel (b. 1923)  
 
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Photographer and activist Mel Roberts captured the spirit of the California Dream that lured thousands of gay men to the Golden State in search of freedom and opportunity after World War II. His photographs of hikers, bikers, surfers, and skateboarders from the 1960s and 1970s have been rediscovered by a new generation of fans and collectors.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, on August 26, 1923, Roberts early evinced an interest in photography. As a teenager he shot 16mm movies of his friends.

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In 1943 he was drafted into the U. S. Armed Services. He served as an Air Force cameraman in the South Pacific. His personal archives include extensive footage of his squadron in action.

After being honorably discharged from the army at the end of the war, Roberts moved to Los Angeles. He enrolled in the University of Southern California, from which he graduated with a degree in filmmaking in 1950.

Because they were not members of the dominant film union ( the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), Roberts and his classmates were unable to find jobs. They were caught in a double bind: they could not get jobs without being members of the union and they could not join the union without first having a job.

To overcome this obstacle and assist USC and UCLA film school graduates, Roberts helped found the Film Craftsmen's Union and, from 1951 to 1954, served as one of its officers. The union was a success, eventually merging with the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians--Communications Workers of America.

Roberts found work with a number of studios including Columbia, Universal, and United Artists.

In 1953 Roberts worked as the music editor on Herbert Biberman's Salt of the Earth, the only motion picture blacklisted in American film history. Appropriately, the film was produced by a number of film artists blacklisted for their membership in the Communist Party or other leftist organizations. The film, which starred Will Geer, the blacklisted bisexual actor who would later play the beloved grandfather on television's The Waltons, focused on Mexican-American miners who were striking against a giant corporation.

Not long afterwards, Roberts was fired in the middle of directing a film for a large aircraft manufacturer in San Diego. He was never given any reason, but suspected that he did not pass the security clearance. "I assumed there were two reasons: I had worked on Salt of the Earth and I was gay."

Despite being subject to discrimination as the result of the House Un-American Activities Committee's pursuit of Communists and other alleged subversives, including homosexuals, Roberts was comfortable with his sexuality and lived openly as a gay man at a time when that was risky, both personally and professionally. In an interview in 2006, he stated simply, "I never thought there was anything wrong with being gay."

But in the 1950s, police harassment of homosexuals and raids of gay bars and cruising areas were commonplace. Roberts heard about Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society, which had been organized in the winter of 1950. He hosted meetings at his house once a month. At first only a few men attended, but as word got out, more and more started coming by. "We tried to make sure that guys who got arrested knew their rights: To remain silent, to demand a jury trial, etc. But if your employer found out you were gay, you got fired anyway."

Roberts took his first photographs of men in 1959, toward the end of the classic physique magazine period. They were first published in Young Physique magazine in 1963. Over the next 20 years, he used a pair of Rolleiflex cameras to take approximately 50,000 photographs of nearly 200 models.

Unlike other physique photographers, Roberts only took pictures of men he knew personally. Many were lovers. They were not the perfectly proportioned bodybuilders, hustlers, or professional models common in the magazines of the time and typical of Athletic Model Guild and Bruce of Los Angeles. In the 1950s and 1960s, before Arthur Jones invented the "Nautilus" machine, working out at the gym was an unusual activity for a young man, gay or straight. Roberts preferred natural, "everyday" young men, rarely older than 25.

Roberts's work is also distinguished by his interest in fashion styles and trends in pop culture. His models often wear cut-off jeans, flower-power bell-bottoms, and love beads. They pose by the backyard pool on op-art towels and recline in bed on zebra-print sheets.

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Butch Wallace. Photograph by Mel Roberts (© Mel Roberts).
  
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