Masculinities – Liberation through Photography

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Review by Gerhard Clausing

We are not all the same, and it would be naïve to expect others to be or to become exactly like ourselves and to share identical visions. So the notion of what is represented by the concept “masculinity” also requires many diverse responses; hence the title of this retrospective of artists’ depictions of the male over the past six decades is in the plural – masculinities. The perspective of the viewer is seen from many angles, from the position of gender, sexual preference, and cultural acceptability or resistance.

The book is described as follows: “Examining increasingly fluid notions of masculinity over the past six decades, this book offers a culturally diverse collection of work from some of the world’s most celebrated photographers” and “touching on themes such as power and patriarchy, queer identity, black masculinity, female perception of men, hypermasculine stereotypes, tenderness and the family …” In other words, a range of themes that includes something for everyone, almost.

Sixty years is quite a long time, during which many changes have occurred as to what is acceptable for general distribution and visual consumption. Thus the relatively furtive and tentatively cautious self-depictions of John Coplans or the straight-forward nudes and bodybuilders by Mapplethorpe stand in contrast to much more provocative and comprehensive 21st century depictions and interpretations of male identity.

This exhibition photobook is full of excellent examples of all that has evolved over those sixty years. A number of essays illuminate not only changing cultural perspectives, but most especially the accompanying increasing attitudinal openness toward various alternatives and rituals of subgroups.

The best way to illustrate this is to view the sample double pages shown below with my brief comments. These are also representative of the major themes and sections of this photobook:

The project “Soldiers” by Adi Nes, showing male camaraderie and toughness (1996)

Sports as a masculine ideal depicted by high school boys on the brink of adulthood, also perhaps masking some insecurities; images by Catherine Opie (2007-2009)

Creating a ‘hypermasculine’ image of militarism in the Nazi era; a collage by Piotr Ulanski (1998)

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bodybuilding days – muscle power as an ideal (1976)

John Coplans, particularly well known for his series depicting his own aging body (1994)

The male in the context of family issues in the series “Ray’s a Laugh” by Richard Billingham (1994-1996)

The softer side of the male, photographed by Peter Hujar (1979-1982)

Appearances and group identification, photographed by Karlheinz Weinberger (1962)

Objectification and stereotyping of African Americans in advertising, a project by Hank Willis Thomas (2006; ads shown here from 1981 and 1978)

Self-portraits by Hans Eijkelboom, based on women’s descriptions of their “Ideal Man” (1978)

There are of course many more viewpoints and visions of the male in this collection. In a brief review one can only scratch the surface. This photobook also includes work by Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Collier Schorr, Larry Sultan, Wolfgang Tillmans, Duane Michals, Tracey Moffatt, and many others. Since this book also serves as the catalog for the exhibitions, it contains many other useful components: a glossary of terms, artist biographies, contributor biographies, end notes, image notes, and a bibliography. It is beautifully edited, designed, and printed; in combination with its large physical size, which makes the reproductions easy to view, it has a “lay-flat” binding which makes turning and lingering on the pages an extra pleasure.

This exhibition was shown at London’s Barbican Gallery (Spring 2020) and was also scheduled for Les Recontres de la Photographie, Arles, France (Summer 2020), and Gropius-Bau Berlin, Germany (October 2020 – January 2021) – check for any changes due to the pandemic.

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Masculinities – Liberation through Photography

Editor and Curator: Alona Pardo

Publisher: Prestel Publishing – Munich, London, New York City; © 2020 by Barbican Centre, London

Essays: Alona Pardo, Chris Haywood, Edwin Coomasaru, Tim Clark, Jonathan D. Katz, Ekow Eshun

Language: English

Hardcover, illustrated, with sewn binding; 320 pages, paginated, with 340 illustrations; 23 x 32 cm (9 x 12.5 inches); printed and bound in Italy by Longo AG, Bolzano

Photobook Designers: The Bon Ton (Amélie Bonhomme and Amy Preston)

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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