What does it mean to be a man today?

We take a walk around the Barbican exhibition, 'Masculinities: Liberation through Photography' to learn more about masculinity in its many forms.

By Barbican Centre

Installation view of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery (2020/2020) by Barbican CentreBarbican Centre

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography

In the wake of #MeToo the image of masculinity has come into sharper focus, with ideas of toxic and fragile masculinity permeating today’s society. This exhibition charts the often complex and sometimes contradictory representations of masculinities, and how they have developed and evolved over time. Touching on themes including power, patriarchy, queer identity, female perceptions of men, hypermasculine stereotypes, tenderness and the family, the exhibition shows how central photography and film have been to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

Curator Tour: Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at the Barbican Art Gallery. (2020/2020) by Barbican CentreBarbican Centre

Take a walk around the exhibition with Barbican curator, Alona Pardo to learn more about masculinity in its many forms through a range of photographs as we ask: what does it mean to be a man today?

Soldiers and bullfighters, bodybuilders and cruisers, fathers and sons, performers and politicians - we'll explore the work of photographers from around the world including Adi Nes, Peter Hujar, Catherine Opie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Hank Willis Thomas, Laurie Anderson and Ana Mendieta.

John Coplans, Self-Portrait (Frieze No. 2, Four Panels) (1994/1994) by Barbican Centre and John CoplansBarbican Centre

Disrupting the Archetype

Soldiers, cowboys, athletes, bullfighters, body builders and wrestlers – all conventional and at times clichéd masculine subjects. In this section, we explore how artists use the camera to destabilise the narrow definitions of gender that determine our social structures to encourage new ways of thinking about identity, gender and sexuality.

Adi Nes' series, Soldiers at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (1994/1994) by Barbican Centre and Adi NesBarbican Centre

Across different cultures and spaces, the military has been central to the construction of masculine identities...

Adi Nes’ evocative and meticulously staged series Soldiers, shows young men performing as infantry soldiers in the Israel Defence Forces - sleeping, resting, smoking and generally larking around.

Nes infuses his images of the military with homoeroticism but also reveals the strong homosocial bonds that exist between soldiers.

Wolfgang Tillmans' Soldiers – The Nineties at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (2020/2020) by Barbican Centre and Wolfgang TilmannsBarbican Centre

In Wolfgang Tillmans' Soldiers – The Nineties, we are faced with a wall of found images of soldiers resting, smoking, reading or partying - at odds with the mythical status of soldiers as men of action and bravery. These images have largely been culled from newspapers and magazines. The images offset the idealised and exaggerated military masculine iconography we usually see, presenting instead, male apprehension, camaraderie and vulnerability.

Thomas Dworzak's Taliban Portraits at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (2002/2002) by Barbican Centre and Thomas DworzakBarbican Centre

While covering the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Thomas Dworzak came across a handful of photo studios in Kandahar which despite the Taliban’s ban on photography had been authorised to remain open to take identity photos.

These striking colour portraits were found in the back rooms of these studios and show Taliban fighters posing in front of scenic backdrops, holding hands, using guns or flowers as props or enveloped in a halo of vibrant colours, their eyes heavily made up with black kohl - a stark contrast to our conventional image of the hypermasculine soldier.

Catherine Opie's series, High School Football at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (2008/2008) by Barbican Centre and Catherine OpieBarbican Centre

Athleticism often goes hand in hand with strength which is usually associated with masculinity. But in Catherine Opie’s tender portrait series, High School Football, her subjects stare into the lens, revealing a vulnerable youthfulness that juxtaposes itself with the aggressive, hypercompetitive and emotionally disconnected energy associated with American football culture.

Rineke Dijkstra's Bullfighters at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (1994/1994) by Barbican Centre and Rineke DijkstraBarbican Centre

Rineke Dijkstra’s (b. 1959, Netherlands) series Bullfighters shows four Portuguese forcados (bullfighters) fresh from the fight, their faces bloodied, their delicate brocaded uniforms ripped, their perfectly coiffed hair askew and dusty and their physical exhaustion palpable.

Jeremy Deller's So Many Ways to Hurt You at Masculinities (2010/2010) by Barbican Centre and Jeremy DellerBarbican Centre

Jeremy Deller's So Many Ways to Hurt You charts the flamboyant life and times of the wrestler ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street, who was born in 1940 to a Welsh mining family in Brynmawr. This this candid film, Street’s persona, a blend of hyper-camp attributes of post-war pop culture and a hard-edged attitude of his working-class background, shines through, revealing his unique capacity to disrupt gender and class stereotypes. The film reflects on the performativity of gender, as Street moves between his various identities: the muscled man, the cross-dresser and the working man.

Installation view of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery (2020/2020) by Barbican CentreBarbican Centre

Richard Avedon's The Family at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery (1976/1976) by Barbican Centre and Richard AvedonBarbican Centre

Male Order: Power, Patriarchy and Space

In this section, we look at the construction of male power,
gender and class. The artists have all tried to expose and subvert how
masculine behaviours have created inequalities between gender identities. 

The wall of photos in Richard Avedon’s The Family, speaks volumes about male power. In the lead up to the US presidential election in 1976, Avedon photographed the key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who clasped the reins of political, economic and cultural power in their hands.

You’ll find the likes of Henry Kissinger, George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan…alongside bankers, media trendsetters, publishers – a nod to the many forces that contribute to the shaping of the highest office in America.

Karen Knorr's Gentlemen at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery (1981/1981) by Barbican Centre and Karen KnorrBarbican Centre

Gentlemen, 1981–83, by Karen Knorr is made up of 26 black-and-white photographs, each accompanied by short texts. Taken in the opulent architectural interiors of all-male private members’ clubs near St. James Park in London, these photographs show the club interiors – filled with portraits of past premiers and leather armchairs – and their members - typically besuited white men.

Offering us sardonic insight into these 'corridors of power', it's hard not to notice the absence of women (the closest then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got to access was as a bronze bust) and other marginalised msaculinities.

What is happening in these private clubs, and how does one qualify for an invite?

Clare Strand, Men Only Tower at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery (2017/2017) by Barbican Centre and Clare StrandBarbican Centre

In Clare Strand’s playful work Men Only Tower (2017), she presents 68 copies of the British softcore publication 'Men Only'.

The magazine that unashamedly claimed: ‘We don’t want women readers. We won’t have women readers.’

Strand’s decision to display the magazines in a vertical glass case, referencing the phallic form, speaks not only of exaggerated size with its clear reference to Trump's America but alludes to how women have historically been excluded from the corridors of power, and how that practice continues to prevail in our contemporary moment.

Piotr Uklanski's The Nazis at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery (1998/1998) by Barbican Centre and Piotr UklanskBarbican Centre

Installation view of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery (2020/2020) by Barbican CentreBarbican Centre

Too Close to Home: Family and Fatherhood

Photography has always been a powerful vehicle for the construction and documentation of family narratives. In contrast to the conventions of the traditional family portrait, the artists gathered here deliberately set out to record the ‘messiness’ of life, reflecting on misogyny, violence, sexuality, mortality, intimacy and unfolding family dramas, presenting a more complex and not always comfortable vision of fatherhood and masculinity.

Aneta Bartos' series Family Portrait at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (2015/2015) by Barbican Centre and Aneta BartosBarbican Centre

Exploding with psychosexual drama and tension, Aneta BartosFamily Portrait, 2015–18, alludes to the way portraiture is often a process of artifice and construction.

What began as the intention to document her father, a retired bodybuilder, before his body started ageing, quickly turned into a collaborative project: Bartos brings herself into the frame to unsettle the father–daughter dynamic.

In Apple for instance, Bartos’s father holds an apple while Bartos stares directly to the camera and by extension at the viewer, calling into question the biblical narrative of the fall of man.

Masahisa Fukase's Family at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (1971/1990) by Barbican Centre and Masahisa FukaseBarbican Centre

Produced over nearly two decades, Masahisa Fukase’s moving series Family uses the backdrop of his family-run photography studio in Hokkaido, northern Japan to construct highly performative yet formal photographs of his family in which semi-clad young women often appear striking deliberately comedic or subversive poses. The women are routinely placed at the left edge of the group giving rise to uncomfortable tensions of hierarchy, equality and dominance.

In positioning the women as ‘extras’ or outsiders, or showing them striking ludicrous poses, the photographs recall pejorative visual tropes and culturally specific contexts – such as the historically patriarchal attitude towards women in Japan – and meditate on the overt ways in which women are still systematically subordinated to men.

Peter Hujar's Orgasmic Man at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery (1969/1969) by Barbican Centre and Peter HujarBarbican Centre

Queering Masculinity

In defiance of the prejudice and legal constraints against homosexuality in Europe, the United States and beyond over the last century, the works presented in ‘Queering Masculinity’ highlight how artists from the 1960s onwards have forged a new politically charged queer aesthetic.

Peter Hujar's Orgasmic Man at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery (1969/1969) by Barbican Centre and Peter HujarBarbican Centre

Working exclusively in black-and-white photography, Peter Hujar favoured pared-back settings, allowing his subjects to be seen intimately through complex plays of shadow and movement.

Peter Hujar's David Brintzenhofe series at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery (1982/1982) by Barbican Centre and Peter HujarBarbican Centre

The idea of life as a performance is a recurring theme in Hujar’s work, which he explored by turning his lens on drag performers, among them David Brintzenhofe, presented here variously looking directly to camera, carefully applying make-up or in full drag. In documenting Brintzenhofe’s transformation, Hujar reflects on the performative and artificial nature of gender.

Catherine Opie's Being and Having at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (1991/1991) by Barbican Centre and Catherine OpieBarbican Centre

The thirteen photographs that make up Being and Having consist of close-up portraits of In Catherine Opie’s Being and Having, we see thirteen close-up portraits of Opie's friends sporting facial hair and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Opie’s work has played a critical role in the way in which we understand gender as an always improvised performance.

Sunil Gupta's series, Christopher Street (1979/1979) by Barbican Centre and Sunil GuptaBarbican Centre

The representation of gay public space has been central to Sunil Gupta’s work over the last four decades. His dynamic photographs of Christopher Street – the site of the 1969 Stonewall riots – capture the carefree spirit that seemed to infuse New York’s downtown gay subcultures in the 1970s. While celebrating the increased visibility and acceptance

Rotimi Fani-Kayode at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (1985/1985) by Barbican Centre and Rotimi Fani-KayodeBarbican Centre

Rotimi Fani-Kayode's work calls attention to the politics of race, representation and queer desire. Fani-Kayode arrived in the UK at the age of eleven having fled the Nigerian Civil War, and his sensual black-and-white portraits, often taken in the studio, explore his experience of being an outsider, both sexually and geographically.

Samuel Fosso's Self Portrait series at Masculinities: Liberations through Photography (1975/1975) by Barbican Centre and Samuel FossoBarbican Centre

Reclaiming the Black Body

Exploring the complexity of the black male
experience, this section presents artists who have consciously subverted expectations of race, gender and the white gaze by
reclaiming the power to fashion their own identities.

Samuel Fosso opened his photographic studio in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, at the tender age of thirteen. During the day Fosso ran a commercial studio, at night he created highly performative black-and-white self-portraits, adopting a series of male personas.

The pictures from that mid-70s period show the teenage Fosso in a variety of guises: wearing high-waisted flared trousers and aviator shades; stripped to the waist with his back to the lens in front of a painted urban backdrop; or dressed up in platform boots and tasselled trousers.

Ultimately, these carefully staged portraits enabled Fosso to assert his own presence, as he says: ‘When you look at my work, it’s my body that is looking at me. It’s my way of seeing.’

Deana Lawson's Sons of Cush (2016/2016) by Barbican Centre and Deana LawsonBarbican Centre

Deana Lawson explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality. In Sons of Cush a heavily tattooed, torso-nude muscular man gazes directly at the camera, a newborn baby in his protective embrace. To his left, a second man’s arm clutches a stack of dollar bills, the word ‘DOPE’ etched onto his knuckles. Lawson’s photographs leave nothing to chance, and through the artist’s careful placing of props she demands the viewer unravel the symbols of black culture.

Hank Willis Thomas at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery (2006/2006) by Barbican Centre and Hank Willis ThomasBarbican Centre

Hank Willis Thomas' Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America mines the language of advertising to deconstruct the commercial representation of the African American male experience, between 1968 - a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights - and 2008, when Obama became President.

By removing all the branding and words from the adverts, mostly designed by white men for African American customers, Thomas exposes the embedded cultural tropes, perpetuated by the media and the white male gaze.

Marianne Wex's Let’s Take Back Our Space (1977/1977) by Barbican Centre and Marianne WexBarbican Centre

Women on Men

As the second-wave feminist movement gained momentum through the 1960s and ’70s, female activists worked to expose and critique the entrenched ideas about masculinity and to offer alternative perspectives on gender and representation. These artists make men their subject with the radical intention of subverting their power, calling into question the notion that men are active and women passive.

In her encyclopedic visual survey Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female and ‘Male Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures, Marianne Wex analysed the differences between female and male body language by assembling hundreds of images culled from advertisements, reportage, fashion magazines, studio portraits and art history alongside photographs she took of people in the streets of Hamburg.

Men sit with their legs apart and feet outward; women sit with their knees and feet together. These differences in posture are, Wex concludes, products of a social conditioning that defines one sex as strong and the other as weak, perpetuating a hierarchical distinction between the sexes in the form of patterns of physical behaviour.

Installation view of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery (2020/2020) by Barbican CentreBarbican Centre

Laurie Anderson's Fully Automated Nikon (1973/1973) by Barbican Centre and Laurie AndersonBarbican Centre

For Laurie Anderson’s Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, the artist shot pictures of men who cat-called her on the streets of New York. By throwing the gaze of these men back onto themselves, Anderson overtly declared her ‘objection to this objectification’. Anderson further incriminates the men by overlaying a white strip on the men’s eyes, simultaneously rendering them anonymous while robbing them of their ‘gaze’ altogether.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (1972/1972) by Barbican Centre and Ana MendietaBarbican Centre

Ana Mendieta’s early series Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) documents a performance where she glued fragments of her fellow student Morty Sklar’s beard onto her own female face, highlighting the idea that binary gender classifications are social constructions that frame and overdetermine sexualities.

By hybridising her identity, Mendieta problematised those classifications, suggesting that so-called masculine identity as expressed throughfacial hair is nothing but artifice.

Hans Eijkelboom's The Ideal Man at Masculinities: Liberation through Photography (1978/1978) by Barbican Centre and Hans EijkelboomBarbican Centre

On his series, The Ideal Man, Hans Eijkelboom: ‘By means of a questionnaire I asked 100 women to describe their ideal man in terms of appearance and clothing. I received 42 replies and from those I chose the most diverse. I sent a portrait of myself to these 10 women asking them to mark on the photo how my face would have to be to fit their image of the ideal man. On the basis of this information, I called in the help of a make-up artist and found the necessary clothes. As a photo of her ideal man was taken, each woman was present to give directions on the clothes and make-up.’

Installation view of Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at Barbican Art Gallery (2020/2020) by Barbican CentreBarbican Centre

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography: Exhibition Trailer (2020/2020) by Barbican CentreBarbican Centre

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