How Photographers Have Challenged What Masculinity Looks Like

Charlotte Jansen
Mar 2, 2020 9:55PM

Adi Nes, Untitled, from the series “Soldiers,” 1999. Courtesy of the artist and Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles.

In London, a radical reimagining of how we experience contemporary masculinity in visual culture is on show at the Barbican. The extensive new exhibition, “Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography,” ranges from photographs of the Taliban and Nazi soldiers to manspreading, incontinence, and sagging scrota. But in a world where men already dominate, do we really need to see more of them?

“Men and masculinity find themselves under the microscope as never before—but it’s not entirely clear what masculinity means,” said the Barbican’s Alona Pardo, who curated “Masculinities.”

Catherine Opie, Rusty, 2008. © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.


The show, which runs through May 17th, takes what Pardo calls a “murky premise” as a starting point to examine the works of 56 artists, created between 1960 and today, that respond to traditional notions of what makes a man. In the past six decades, Pardo pointed out, “artists have consistently sought to disrupt and disturb narrow definitions of gender that determine social structures.” These artworks exist as a form of resistance, operating in societies where traditional conceptions of masculinity persist.

“It’s important to say this exhibition is, in part, a celebration of masculinity—patriarchy and the abuse of male power is not synonymous with masculinity,” said Jane Alison, head of visual arts at the Barbican. As the title of the show suggests, the problem is not masculinity in and of itself, but how it has been constructed as a singular ideal—something that, Alison and Pardo believe, photography has the potential to free us from.

In one of the exhibition’s six sections, “Disrupting the Archetype,” artists deconstruct entrenched images of heteronormative and hegemonic masculinity. There’s a series of four color photographs of Portuguese forcado bullfighters who must work together to overpower the animal. These portraits, however, by Rineke Dijkstra, show the men alone and bloodied; captured not in the midst of their fight but after the act, they appear torn, raw, and exhausted. Stereotypically masculine qualities—strength, bravery, domination, violence—are acknowledged and unraveled, too. Sam Contis’s 2017 series “Deep Springs” examines the mythology of the cowboy and the American West. The images are the result of four years that Contis spent deeply involved in an all-male liberal arts college in California.

Contis’s work connects to other photographs in the exhibition that highlight the spaces and places where women are excluded—and where masculinity can become toxic. Frat houses feature in Richard Mosse’s 2007 video work Fraternity (filmed inside Yale’s Delta Kappa Epsilon) and in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity.

Karlheinz Weinberger, Horseshoe Buckle, 1962. © Karlheinz Weinberger. Courtesy of Esther Woerdehoff.

Karen Knorr, Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen from the series Gentlemen, 1981-83. © Karen Knorr. Courtesy of Tate and Barbican Art Gallery.

The U.K. capital’s infamous private boys’ clubs—which have produced many of the U.K.’s politicians—are depicted in 26 photographs by Karen Knorr. She shot the images in central London in the early 1980s at members-only, men-only spaces, and captioned them with snippets of overheard conversations, news reports, and government records. With their leather chesterfields and dark wood paneling—design elements that are common in other exclusive, male-dominated environments across Britain like private schools, Oxford University, and the Houses of Parliament—Knorr establishes an intriguing link between these hypermasculine environments, their architecture, and power.

Knorr’s work contrasts with the domestic and interior “safe” spaces in the works of artists like Sunil Gupta, who has documented the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. and India for three decades. Gupta’s series “Exiles” (1986–87) portrays gay and queer men living in New Delhi in the 1980s, at a time when homosexuality was prohibited. The construction of their own world—and Gupta’s—through the camera was the only way to preserve their identities and express themselves, or “to revel in their queerness as a natural state of being,” Pardo said. Gupta, who lives in London, will have his first retrospective at The Photographer’s Gallery in fall 2020.

Sunil Gupta, Untitled 22, from the series “Christopher Street,” 1976. © Sunil Gupta. Courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery.

Throughout the exhibition, it is mostly up to queer artists to “shatter oppressive sexual stereotypes,” as Pardo put it, and to problematize and challenge masculinity and constructs of maleness. Many of the artists in this exhibition make work about the LGBTQ+ communities they belong to, their own experiences as queer people, and the versions of masculinity they perceive. Catherine Opie’s series “Being and Having” (1991) is a theater of typecasts that views machismo from the perspective of butchness. There are exquisite, erotically charged portraits by the late Peter Hujar, while trans artist Cassils gives us a vision of masculinity without men in their “Time Lapse” (2011), a Muybridge-esque presentation of their body as it transformed under steroids and training.

While the queer gaze is posited here as fundamental to the reinvention of masculinities, there are also artists who present counter-narratives from other perspectives—particularly in a revelatory section dedicated to the paternal figure. There are highly emotive, tender portraits of a family history in Kalen Na’il Roach’s series “My Dad Without Everybody Else” (2013–14), which shows old photographs of the artist’s father as a baby, a child, and a youth—a reconstruction through the materiality of the photograph. In Masahisa Fukase’s equally tender representations of his father, from “Memories of Father” (1971–87), the artist charts his father’s aging and failing health. In one poignant picture, the son carries the father in his arms, their backs turned away from the camera. Evocative and deeply personal, these works pull you between absence and presence, introducing a profound sense of fragility and vulnerability not normally associated with the image of the authoritarian father figure.

Masahisa Fukase, Upper row, from left to right: A, a model; Toshiteru, Sukezo, Masahisa. Middle row, from left to right: Akiko, Mitsue, Hisashi Daikoji. Bottom row, from left to right: Gaku, Kyoko, Kanako, and a memorial portrait of Miyako, 1985, from the series “Family,” 1971-90 © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.

Hal Fischer, Street Fashion: Jock, from the series “Gay Semiotics,” 1977/2016. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London.

There is one thing that’s notably absent from “Masculinities,” however: penises. There is objectification, though, explored via the erotic, queer, and female gazes. Annette Messager’s 1972 series “The Approaches” zooms in on men’s crotches in public spaces, with a long-lens camera and without permission; the work reverses and reclaims the power of the gaze. There are fetishistic representations of male bodies, too, in the leather thongs of Hal Fischer’s “Gay Semiotics” (1977), or the buffed buttocks and bulging biceps on view—including a portrait of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger taken by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1976. There is one striking, flaccid phallus, belonging to an anonymous nude man dressed in a fur suit, as seen in a small black-and-white portrait from 1970 by Karlheinz Weinberger. It’s one of the few representations of frontal nudity. Everywhere you look, penises are implied, but the exhibition avoids direct or explicit depictions.

The show opens with a self-portrait by John Coplans that introduces the promise of a different view of the enduring subject of the male nude, which traces back as far as Classical sculpture, when the size of the penis was carefully crafted to reflect the figure’s intellect and character. Coplans’s work offers a “counter-representation” of the narrative on the “the male body’s physical size, strength, and sexual virility, considered essential markings of man’s masculinity,” Pardo said. In the four super-scale black-and-white photographs, the body appears soft and imperfect, but they are still posed to conceal the photographer’s modesty.

Installation view of “Masculinities : Liberation through Photography” at Barbican Art Gallery, 2020. © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Courtesy of Barbican Art Gallery.

Given that male sexuality is such a prominent part of the issues around masculinity—not to mention the long imbalance between the way we look at female nudity versus male nudity—the absence of penises is prominent in what is otherwise a comprehensive psychological and cultural anatomy of masculinity now.

Perhaps Laura Mulvey put it best in a quote printed large on the wall at “Masculinities”—“the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.”

Charlotte Jansen