For a rough guy, Michael Alago’s pretty smooth. The man behind “Brutal Truth,” a new photo book of M-E-N (capitalization intentional), surrounds himself in a cluttered and charming Chelsea high-rise, and talks in the kind of sweet sentiment that makes you want to drink lemonade on the deck and watch an old romance on AMC.
Looking through his photographs, you might get a different impression. Alago’s work, first recognized in 2004’s “Rough Gods,” is of guys who probably wouldn’t make the cover of “Instinct” or be cast in “The Bachelor.” And that’s the point.
“I used to take pictures of tricks I picked up late at night,” Alago tells me over tea. “I’d Polaroid them; I loved the stories those pictures told.” A veteran of the music industry for 23 years, Alago loved photographs way before his first book was published. “When I went to people’s homes as a child, I always wanted to see their family photographs. When I was still traveling for the music business, I’d always look for the seedy bar; the avenues where hustlers worked.”
Once Alago switched professions, he didn’t have an interest in professional models, personally or professionally. “I wanted to take pictures of men I’m attracted to. Models are homogenized. My best contacts are when I meet someone face to face.” Variety counts too. “I’m attracted to young body builders and ‘Dads.’ I love football players; guys with scars.”
Alago’s new book contains 260 color photographs of men, some fully clothed, some with erections, some standing next to, or beside a photo of, flowers. Some are completely naked, others just show a smile. “Nude isn’t most important,” he says. “When the subject is open, whether it’s taking off his clothes or not, if he’s enjoying the experience it’s going to show up in his eyes—it’s there.”
If there’s a discernable theme in Alago’s work, it’s urban splendor, both in his subjects and their surroundings. “If it’s a beautiful day, we hit the streets,” he says. “I love anything from a garden to a construction site.”
“Brutal Truth” was a five-year labor of love for Alago, and it also contains original poems, and that flora. “I like big brutes with flowers. It can soften the pictures.”
Alago started in the music industry as a talent scout and moved up to producer, signing artists like Metallica and Nina Simone, for her final recording. The 51-year-old still works with artists he loves (he’s credited on Cyndi Lauper’s last two records). For him, the switch from music to photography was a simple progression of life.
“Everything has a beginning, middle, and end,” he says. “In 2004, I decided I wanted to devote my life to photography, and I just threw myself into this. I started asking men to pose for me and it was like telephone or a snowball. I have no fear, thank God. Fear stops you in your tracks; you don’t grow.”
That fearlessness led to his first book, which opened up the worldwide gallery world for the new kid on the photo block. Nowadays, he says he’s not worried about the e-book market or the online photography sites, or the inundation of gay porn on the Internet.
“I have been lucky to find this niche called Rough Gods. People know what they’re getting into when they look at my work. I like guys who look rough and tough and I like to make them look vulnerable. People think they could be friends with this person.”
Unbeknownst to me at the time of our interview, turns out that one of Alago’s models is a childhood friend of mine. Sure, the guy’s a little intimidating, but one of the sweetest men you’d ever want to meet. And that’s the truth.