A noted photographer and music producer, Michael Alago is best known for his work as a talent scout and producer in the music industry.
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A noted photographer and music producer, Michael Alago is best known for his work as a talent scout and producer in the music industry. Among his greatest accomplishments were working with Nina Simone on her final full-length album, A Single Woman, and signing the Grammy-winning heavy metal band Metallica to Elektra Records. Alago, who currently lives and works in New York City, has exhibited his photographs in Paris, Berlin, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Montreal and Toronto.
S.C. Lord Design, located in Baltimore, MD, will present Alago’s bold photographs which “pay glorious tribute to body art, sexuality and muscle in a series of aggressively-styled portraits,” in the upcoming exhibition Rough Gods: Brutal Truth and Beauty.Rough Gods runs from January 15 through March 14, with an opening reception, featuring a live Polaroid photo shoot with Alago and his favorite model, Timothy Corscadden, on Saturday, January 17 from 6-9 p.m.
Alago spoke with Gay Life about some of the highlights of his career in the music industry, his love of photography and the hyper-masculine subject, the allure of the Polaroid and the importance of pursuing what one truly loves.
Before photography, you worked in the music industry for a number of years.
Oh, yes. I was involved in the music business from 1981 until 2003. My first job was at a nightclub called the Ritz on E. 11th Street in the East Village. I answered the phones a lot and was kind of groomed there to be the assistant music director. I was
there for 3 years and then for the next 20 years, I spent working at Elektra Records and Geffen Records doing A and R (Artist and Repertoire). I was basically a talent scout. I signed new up and coming artists to the record labels.
What were some of the highlights of this phase of your life?
There were tons of highlights. Thank goodness my instincts were really good…and I just love music. I signed a variety of artists from Metallica to Nina Simone. I saw Metallica summer of 1984 and just thought it was the most incredible sound I had ever heard. They were doing something so new in heavy metal…and I just fell in love with them. They were so charismatic on stage. They were ring leaders. I kind of knew that I wanted to have these people in my professional life. I signed them, and the rest is history.
Then, on the other end of the spectrum, I love the classics, the standards. I love Frank Sinatra. I love Tony Bennett. But, above all, I love Nina Simone. I listened to her growing up and she was just one of my favorites. I got to sign her to Elektra around 1993 and little did I know the record we were making, called A Single Woman, would be her last full-length recording. She didn’t end up recording another album before she passed away in April 2003. I also worked with White Zombie, Michael Feinstein…. It was really an exciting time for me. It was the ‘80s and I was in my 20’s and I was finding all of these new artists…or artists who weren’t on labels in the U.S. I ended up having a great rapport with these artists and they loved the history of Elektra…that The Doors and The Stooges were there before them. It was an extraordinary record label to be at. It was really a lot of fun and I loved my job.
Why did you decide to leave the music business and pursue photography?
After doing anything for 23 years, enough is enough. Records weren’t selling the way they used to. There was all of this file sharing, downloading…going on that really interfered with record sales. I thought, “You know what. I want to just stop now while I feel like I left on a real high.” And, I got to do a lot of things that I wanted to do and I didn’t want to be in corporate life any more.
I always took photographs. I always loved pictures. I loved to look at anyone’s family album because I liked to imagine what stories were being told in the pictures. When I was young, I always had a plastic camera and loved to shoot people, family events. As I grew older, the Polaroids turned into tricks that I wound up picking up while on the road….a very different family portrait (laughs).
You still shoot Polaroids, right?
I mostly shoot with a digital camera, but I love Polaroids. You know, it’s still part of the allure of taking a picture. As I grew up and the nature of polaroids…they always felt, as an adult, a bit naughty to me…just one image, no negative. For me, the Polaroid wound up being kind of erotic. I still use Polaroids in my work now. I love that it’s one of a kind. I love that it’s in a square. I love that it’s small, that it’s precious. I love that if it’s exhibited, you have to walk up really close and get involved and talk about it.
I thought, I just want to shoot photographs and I want to shoot photographs of men. I don’t want to take pictures of models or go to agencies and find people because everyone does that. Then, things become homogenized and I never want to be homogenized. I wanted to shoot men that I was attracted to: body builders, football players, tattooed men, scarred men. Anyone who had this tough exterior. I never wanted anyone to be mean or nasty. I just love that hyper-masculine look. It was something that totally turns me on all the time…..
It’s funny. There’s a picture I took of a guy’s back and on his back is the head of Jesus Christ. I shot that with a little plastic camera that I had in my pocket when I was at the Eagle one night. It is a picture that wound up being very popular and has sold really well. If you have a camera, any camera, and you kind of know what you’re doing and there’s a feeling to what you’re shooting, it really doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use. I can shoot with a $10 plastic camera, a digital camera, a Polaroid camera. Now that Polaroid’s gone out of business, I’m trying horde Polaroid 600 film so I don’t have to throw myself out a window (laughs). I just love the medium so much.
Where do you find most of your subjects?
Oh god, I find some of them at online sites. Or, if someone is walking down the street and I feel like it’s a good time to approach someone, I approach them on the street. And, always when I have a good session with someone, I’ll give them another business card and tell them if they have a friend that has a similar vibe, I’d love to shoot them. I’ve had great luck and a lot of people have said “yes” to me, which is really a blessing.
I make the sessions fun and adventurous and spontaneous. I really don’t do a lot of preparation. I like to meet someone at least once before I shoot them just to get a vibe from them. When we shoot, we do it in the studio against a simple back drop or find a cool location and we just go and start shooting. I find that when I don’t do a lot of prep work that there is this electricity and excitement, this really live feeling…so that once the picture is exhibited you feel that energy and life in that image.
You have a new book due out soon. What is the focus of your new work?
About two and half years ago, I put out a book on my own called Rough Gods. It was a limited edition book of about 2,000. They’re all numbered and signed and they’re almost sold out. I’m working on another book that will be out in late summer 2009. It’ll be the same name as my show—Rough Gods: Brutal Truth and Beauty. That’s the show that’s coming to Baltimore.
Are you really going to be doing a live photo shoot at the opening of your show in Baltimore on January 17?
We’re going to do a photo shoot with my favorite model, Timothy Corscadden. He is tattooed work of art…that I also have a crush on (laughs). The visual is so beautiful. He’s this body builder. When you think of someone whose whole head is tattooed, you can say “fine, whatever.” But, it is this almost elegant, warrior, gladiator look. It’s not silly. It’s powerful and strong. He really is a masterpiece. We’re going to do this fun Polaroid shoot for everyone opening night of the exhibit.
Do you have any other upcoming projects and where do you see life taking you next?
Well, I still dabble in music. I’m in the music business now in a very small way…the way I want to work in the music industry, not the way a corporation wants me to. I recently worked on the Cyndi Lauper record that just came out. I’m hoping to work with her again this year. That’s exciting because I really do love and respect her as an artist. I also worked with an artist from Washington, DC called Richard Morel. He made a record called The Death of the Paperboy that I executive produced. I also put out a record on “Outsider Music” by this musician named Colton Ford. It’s an R and B record…with a very Justin Timberlake, George Michael vibe.
.…I’ve been so fortunate. I think it’s so great when one gets to do what they really want and love in life.