Nasty guys are — and always will be — dynamite queerbait: The fuck-you stances, the big-armed tattoos, the strutting in-your-face dickyness. Capturing the dangerous aura of testosterone that envelopes these men is a tricky business, but Michael Alago, a music producer only recently turned photographer, has done just that in his new self-published monograph rough gods.
Here we are shown the hustlers, porn-stars and bodybuilders Alago has approached in the street or met online. Though these are posed shots, the camera pulls out of the subjects exactly the raw quality that makes them such fetishy turn-ons. That, as well as an unexpected, non-intrusive beauty.
The cool window light on porn-star Colton Ford, above, for instance, plays against the warm lamplight of a, perhaps, hotel bedroom, the scornful bird-flipping contradicted — eclipsed really — by the very real, very excited hard-on. This is the sort of ying-yang dynamic that often runs under the radar throughout these photos. Cold and warm, light and dark, fuck you and fuck me.
"I like to play visuals off each other," says Alago referring to the montage of jockstrap and Coney Island roller coaster, left. "The word hustler in itself conjures up visuals of late-night street corners and money and what the do’s and don’ts of the encounter are. The jockstrap was left on a stairs in Provincetown. The way it was left behind makes you want to smell it and hope that it was used and that the aroma was of sweat and cum." The two images are collaged together in this photo, he says, because they have an inner psychological connection.
Even the two-page spreads in rough gods are meant to be viewed as single images. Typically, they might feature flowering bushes on one side and something boldly masculine — a muscular turned neck — on the other. "I think my images are about strength and seduction," says the photographer. "I love the flowers coupled with the men. It has a masculine-feminine vibe going on. Also on a purely visual level, viewing the book as a diptych — left image in a conversation with the right image — is an arresting way to present the photos."
Another marked feature of the book is that many of its hottest men are over 40. "I never wanted rough gods to have a homogenized look so I purposefully avoided going to agencies for models. Most of the men I shoot are in their 30’s and 40’s — I love this age group, especially when a mature man has a big hulky body and a daddy-like quality. These men exude sex. They have lived their lives and it shows in the way they carry themselves. My models are sort of the strongmen of my dreams."
Alago has never been shy about approaching rough customers in the street — "not after 22 years in the music industry!" he quips. In his previous incarnation as a talent scout, Alago discovered Metallica and worked with everyone from Johnny Rotten to Nina Simone.
"A lot of the men I end up shooting I do approach in the street," he says. "I tell them I like their look and hand them my card that says good luck on a pair of knuckles. That visual usually gets a laugh. I think the sentiment behind good luck makes them curious to go to my site. Then they usually move forward with the shoot. The calling card is kind of a good-luck charm in itself."
"Sometimes there’s a real sexual vibe going on during a shoot," he allows when pressed as to whether his wildmen ever go really wild on him. "Usually, we just have great chemistry, and the images come out strong and honest and that’s that. Other times, the sexual tension keeps mounting as the session continues. Then once the camera gets put away, some low-down sucking and fucking happens! — but that’s rare. You can sense it afterwards in the photo, though. The sexiness that was in the air."
Asked why he left the music business, Alago sighs wistfully. "It ceased to be fun," he says. "I wasn’t into making hip-hop records or Top 40 records. The business changed so much that there was no room for artist development. Look, after you sign Metallica and Nina Simone — which was the fucking ultimate for me! [Alago was responsible for getting Simone to record what would be her last full-length album] — where can you go after that?"
Well, one thing you could do is fly off to Berlin and take this fabulous, strangely glamorous photo of Marlene Dietrich‘s grave (right). "Yes," says Alago, "that’s all she wanted on her grave, just the first name. I adore flowers and their fragrance and I wanted to go to the grave when they were in bloom."
Still, our favorite photo in the book is the one at left, "Joe of Provincetown," shot also in a cemetery. Here we have a hyper-male subject presented in a way that sugests the vocabulary of female portraiture. The sidelong glance, the slow languor of his posture as he rests against the splintery pole — he seems to offer himself up, as a beautiful woman might, to our eyes. And yet the woof factor of this guy –with his devil goatee and tats and longshoreman’s cap — is undeniable!
"Everyone finds this photo provocative," confides Alago. "He reminds me of a drunken sailor from a Rimbaud poem. I love the come-hither look, the chain around his neck, and those fucking beefy pecs — what killer looks!"
"The thing I’m always shooting for in my photos," he sums up, "is that they be both masculine and seductive.” We’d say he has done that. Beautifully.
To purchase the 64-page rough gods monograph, , as well as prints of these photos, visit the rough gods website. This summer Michael Alago’s photos will go on display around the country:
Manhattan: until June 25, Leslie-Lohman Gallery (127 B Prince St.)
Atlanta: August 12 – 31, Outwrite Books (991 Piedmont Ave.)
Portland, Or.: August 5 – 31, Brian Marki Gallery (2236 N.E. Broadway)
photographs ©2005 Michael Alago