Michael Stokes didn’t always photograph naked men for a living. He used to sell homes; before that he was a flight attendant. The 48-year-old, Mormon-raised Californian, gave it all up for something he could really sink his teeth into.
“I knew the market was going to take a dump, and I didn’t want to be around it,” says Stokes, with a quiet, cautious voice that at times sounds like he’s worried he might say the wrong thing. It’s a surprising trait from a man whose career depends on being bold, and who’s got looks any other lens would love (that’s his body you see when you first log on to the website).
Stokes sold his business in 2005, including his Long Beach home, rented a new place in Westwood, and started collecting photographs.
“I saw these photos from the late 1800s,” he says. “I started researching that period; I read books that enlightened me and wondered how different we are now. There was an underground society of gay men, repressed men who were not conservative, not Victorian. I found a Daguerreotype of a man holding his pants down, holding his erection.”
Stokes bought that print and several others, and then “it got expensive, and I realized I could start making them instead.”
Stokes’ first calendar, Provocateur, is a 2012 pin-up (and damn is that phrase appropriate!) of masculinity, muscles, and everything else the word “men” implies. All color, his photos are dramatic and a touch mystical, utilizing lots of dark space so there’s room for wanderlust (again, damn is that phrase appropriate!).
One photo, which I can’t post here, shows a faceless man in a bathroom stall, with a wedding band in one hand and something significantly larger in the other. Stokes says the shot was inspired by UCLA’s infamous Royce Hall basement rest room, where eager gay students used to go to study what would later become a way of life.
It’s the one shot in the calendar that might reflect Stokes’ rebellious upbringing. When he first launched his photography website, his mother was “horrified.” Says Stokes: “She wrote me a five-page letter saying that I could be assassinated, I could be put in jail; I’m having a mid-life crisis.”
Many of Stokes’ photos, in this calendar and otherwise, show men full-frontal, some with erections. “Everyone close to me has a different opinion of what is pornography,” says Stokes. “And they all say pornography cannot be fine art. But then they’ll say Mapplethorpe is fine art. I no longer argue with people about it.”
Stokes doesn’t like to define the term himself, but says that “I like to differentiate between images created for mass-consumption versus images created that are not designed to masturbate to.”
He’s also quick to defend the merits of Photoshop. “The human eye is much more sophisticated than cameras. Sometimes the touch-up makes it look more real.”
In the three years that Stokes has been photographing men, he’s gone from an ad on Craigslist (“I was nervous, he was nervous”), to getting about five requests a day. “I decline about 90 percent,” he says, adding that he shoots about three men a month. Surprisingly, in our “Logan’s Run” gay world, Stokes’ doesn’t have an age requirement, and one man in the calendar is past the 50 mark.
“Just whatever appeals to me,” says Stokes on the guys he chooses. “They can be super fitness. They can have an exceptionally beautiful face, or they can have a lot of sexuality. If the model has all three, great—but it’s rare.”
In addition to the 2012 calendar, Stokes’ work has appeared in Turnon Tattoos: Men Who Get Under Your Skin and Jewels. For the first time in his new career, all 14 photos (the front and back pictures are extras!) are his. Stokes may not know how to define pornography, but he’s quickly learning the art of commerce.