Born in Ohio in 1923, Roberts started by creating 16mm movies of his friends while he himself was a teenager. Then in 1943, he was drafted and served as a cameraman documenting the Pacific Theater of World War II. Following the war, he graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in film making and continued to work in a variety of Hollywood studios as a director, cinematographer and film editor. It was during the late 1950s that he bought his first still camera and began photographing young male models. In 1962 he submitted some of his portraits to Young Physique magazine and the photos were accepted.
Unlike other contemporary male physique photographers, Roberts’ portraits were not muscular bodybuilders but rather more natural, everyday guys posed casually by the pool or against the natural panoramic vista of Santa Monica, La Jolla, Malibu and Yosemite. Roberts commented that “I always thought that there was one place that the manly figure should be — out in a natural environment, because man is part of nature. I think that’s what got me intrigued and started in this business, because I felt the male model wasn’t being treated properly in the natural environment.”
Roberts took an estimated 50,000 photographs of nearly 200 male models. Intended to document young men in the midst of changing times, Roberts’ photographs highlight the experimental openness and uninhibited attitudes of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The portraits resonate with the natural connection between photographer and models, who find comfort with their nudity before the camera. “What you see in their eyes is actually a kind of friendship, bonding, and total relaxation because usually the people that I photographed were also my friends,” Roberts says. —Mel Roberts