Mel Roberts‘ documentary-style photo book California Boys: Photographs From the 1960s and 1970s — with its period-piece assortment of little-boy art whores on parade, captured in all their radiant youth — is an absolute gay treasure. Roberts, who started off as a filmmaker (he worked on the blacklisted film Salt of the Earth in 1952), didn’t start taking pictures professionally until 1959, at the end of the classic physique-model period. He isn‘t as well known as Bob Mitzer’s Athletic Model Guild or Bruce of Los Angeles, but his style of latently homo physique photography is more pastoral, with a cinematic and highfalutin high-fashionconceptual veneer. The rigidly posed models are art-directed to death in unnatural settings. Kidney-shaped pools, scenic vistas and midcentury homes function as riotous fashion accessories. It‘s a downright hoot!
The nudes in Roberts’ book aren‘t explicit. In fact, the pictures in which the boys are fully clothed, which I prefer, are more revealing. Poor pitiful little Dick Niesen, posed in majestic Yosemite, peg-leg pants, loafers and white socks, so pink of face and well-scrubbed. Is he a new Roberts trick fresh off a Midwestern turnip truck, or a displaced and soon-to-be-discarded lover? These photos all have a glossy, publicity-still sheen, but there’s more attention to detail: too-short shorts riding a narrow rump in just the most flattering of angles, a newspaper announcing the death of Marilyn Monroe perfectly positioned in the sand, or a bevy of bubble-butt “high snow” boys evoking Tab Hunter or Troy Donahue.
I‘m sure a lot of stylists will be ripping off this book, or at least using it as source material. I can’t wait to see how the daisy-duke-wearing-street-urchin-in-tube-socks or psychedelic-bell-bottoms-with-prominent-bulge look plays as filtered through a tired rock video, TV commercial or print ad (icky David LaChapelle).
In the early 1980s, after a succession of police raids, Roberts finally called it quits. What a shame. I would have loved to see his Leif Garrett–look-alike-hesher-stoner-hustler-in-Eagle‘s-T phase fully flourish.