Michael Stokes: Photographer’s lens captures beauty of wounded heroes

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Michael Stokes: Photographer’s lens captures beauty of wounded heroes

One L.A.-based photographer has literally stripped bare the stigma of injured veterans who return home from the battlefront. 

The more recent subjects of Michael Stokes are strong, scarred and sensuous, embodied in the poses of heroic war veterans. 

His subjects are, in at least one noticeable way, a far cry from the seemingly perfect models who graced the pages of male physique catalogues in the 1950s. Some have amputated limbs, or scars and burns that streak across their muscular forms. Here, in Stokes’ photographs, the beauty of the male body meets the ravages of war.

Two separate compilations of Stokes’ photographic works will be published on Nov. 15 – his third and fourth coffee table books. “Always Loyal” is a collection of photos dedicated entirely to Gulf War veterans, and a throwback to part his 2014 book, “Bare Strength.” His other new release, “Exhibition,” meanwhile, focuses on images of bodybuilders and personal trainers. 

Michael Stokes Photography

Stokes has been fighting battles of his own, mostly in the online world. The man who counts such artists as Wilhelm von Gloeden and Kris of Chicago among his inspirations says that although male physique photographers always had to look behind them for police officers and live with the constant fear of imprisonment, artists of today instead endure judgment in the court of public opinion on social media sites like Facebook, which bow to unfounded, consistent complaints from users who believe his work has no place there. 

“I’m able to be more out and open with the photos I’m doing. It is no longer illegal to ship these photos in the mail. My home isn’t under surveillance by the FBI. I don’t know how they did it, with that constant anxiety of going to jail,” Stokes notes of his predecessors. “But what I have noticed is that there is a different type of obstacle in online harassment. People are using cyberbullying to suppress other people’s points of view, and that has been done to me.”

Stokes specifically remembers one of the first threats he received on Facebook in regards to one of his images. 

“I first got a threat from a preacher’s daughter who said, ‘If you do not remove this photo, I will ruin you,’” said Stokes, who notes that Facebook, by removing pages of artists due to baseless complaints, allows for no recourse when those artists are bullied, harassed or intimidated. “My pushback comes from extremely religious people – they’re almost zealots. I have a lot of Christian and Republican followers. (The pushback) is not from those groups in general – it’s from those smaller groups, and Facebook bows to them.”

As for his two new books, Stokes says, viewers may take from them what they will. 

“Whatever message comes to your mind, I’m not going to tell a viewer how to interpret my work,” says Stokes, an alumnus of California State University, Long Beach. “Once my work is released, it’s subject to interpretation, and I’m not a part of it anymore.”

The response to his work from veteran and military circles has been largely positive, however. 

Michael Stokes Photography

“The veteran community is a brotherhood, and their attitude is, ‘Hey, I’m not doing what you’re doing, but you gave up a limb, and this is what you want to do,’” Stokes said. 

In addition to his upcoming photography books, Stokes has been active as a new volunteer to the Mizer Foundation, monitoring the sale and use of Mizer’s photos on the popular auction site, eBay. For Stokes, protecting his own images and the work of Bob Mizer is not just his duty as an artist –indeed, it’s a labor of love. 

“I don’t think my vision is necessarily original. Mizer is definitely a big influence,” Stokes says. “His older stuff is the best. He was connected with some pretty famous bodybuilders. … One thing he did better than most is, he knew how to get a model to look up in the air and focus on something with some kind of intensity, almost as if he’s looking up to a deity.”

Stokes refers to his coffee table books as his “bread and butter,” and, through a Kickstarter campaign, has raised $411,000 toward the production and publication of his two most recent books. In addition, he has raised $20,000 for the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit organization designed to support wounded veterans and their families. 

For more information on Stokes’ photographs, books and other projects, including links to online vendors taking preorders for “Always Loyal” and “Exhibition,” visit www.michaelstokes.net.