Mel Roberts was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1923. He started creating his own imagery as a teenager by shooting 16mm movies of his friends. He was drafted in 1943 and served as a cameraman documenting World War II in the South Pacific. After the war, Roberts moved to California. Like many, he wanted to work in Hollywood. He studied cinema and graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in filmmaking. One of Roberts’ earliest projects after graduation was working on the blacklisted film, “Salt of the Earth,” as music editor.
Roberts became involved in the newly-formed Mattachine Society—one of the earliest political organizations of the gay movement—and lived as an openly gay man. A turning point occurred while Roberts was working for a large aircraft manufacturer in San Diego: “I was right in the middle of directing a film when I went to the office and was told to leave the building immediately. I couldn’t figure out why. They never told me. I didn’t pass the security clearance, obviously. I assumed there were two reasons: I had worked on ‘Salt of the Earth’ and because I was gay.”
Roberts then found work as a model for the La Jolla Museum of Art, and spent his days surfing and combing the beach. It was the beginning of a new direction in his life.
Shortly thereafter, Roberts returned to Los Angeles and began getting work from a variety of Hollywood studios as a director, cinematographer, and film editor, which kept him busy through much of the mid- to late-1950s. Roberts bought his first still camera during this time, and began shooting his friends and lovers.
From the late 1950s through the late 1970s, Roberts’ photographs of young men were published in a variety of American and European magazines, including “Young Physique.” The artist then began receiving requests for prints from mail-order customers worldwide.
In 1977, and again in 1979, the Los Angeles Police Department raided Roberts’ home. During the 1979 raid, the LAPD seized all of Roberts’ negatives, prints, cameras, and even mailing lists. Without any ability to contact his customers or fill orders, Roberts’ business was on the verge of collapse. The LAPD refused to release the impounded property for over a year, even though the city attorney found nothing actionable and charges were never filed against Roberts. By 1981, Roberts decided to end his professional photography career. In 1992 the LAPD raided Roberts’ home a third time, seizing portions of the same material as before. Again, no charges were filed.
Mel Roberts died in 2007.