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The Barbican’s new photography show celebrates unfixed ideas of masculinity

From Catherine Opie to Collier Schorr, Laurie Anderson, and many more, we survey the photographers featured in the new exhibition and their infinite depictions of masculinity

According to Susan Sontag – a voice on contemporary photography so often seen as its oracle – “Men, unlike women, are not a work in progress”. In an introduction to a book of photographs of women by Annie Leibovitz, Sontag laments the fact that women are always viewed as an instance of women, and never all people, or even just, themselves: “any large-scale picturing of women belongs to the ongoing story of how women are presented, and how they are invited to think of themselves.” According to Sontag, sometimes a man is just a man, but a woman is always a representative. Except, it’s not quite as simple as that.

When we look at a man, what do we see? What is a man anyway? And how does he exist today? A new exhibition at the Barbican invites us to think about these questions, and then sets the business of answering them aside. Opening today, Masculinities: Liberation through Photography takes a journey through 300 works by over 50 artists to survey what happens when we try to capture something of ‘masculinity’. Featuring photography and film from the 1960s to the present day, the exhibition is a contemporary examination of the slipperiness of gendered representation; instead of answering our questions about masculinity, it invites us to ask even more. All of which makes very apparent that men are, in fact, a work in progress. And so it follows that they always have been.

Across six sections, the broad expanse of work on show speaks to the “unfixed” nature of masculinity that exhibition text reflects on. This rejection of fixity begins with a series of images that focus in some way on the body. Sontag sees the male body as “an expression of power, an instrument of dominance”, but for many of the male subjects, it is in the very focus on their appearance that their dominance seems to quiver. In being looked at they are so often left so exposed.

Here we find the lens of Adi Nes resting on the sleeping faces of some Israeli soldiers, and also Catherine Opie’s portrait series of serious-looking American high school footballers – whose tough posture is undermined in each case by a hesitant crossing of the arms that betrays their age. Collier Schorr, Isaac Julien, and Sam Contis all chip away at the archetype of the cowboy by showing the reality of actually being one. Elsewhere, well-oiled bodybuilders and wrinkly old men are in exchange with ecstatic Liverpool fans and bloodied, baby-faced matadors. This first series of images all speak to ideas of strength and action – the ways the male body can function as both the site and the weapon of patriarchal violence.

It’s true that normative ideas about outward masculine appearance have been some of the sharpest tools of male oppression, and these ideas have always needed an Other to define themselves against. What so many of the artists in this show do so well is reframe the relationship between the other and the paradigm, especially by undermining the western hegemony that has painted masculinity as heteronormative and white. Thomas Dworzak’s reclaimed photobooth portraits of Afghan fighters, heavily made-up, and clutching both loaded guns and each other’s hands, are found to have a kinship with Andy Warhol’s video of Male Models talking about what it means to work and live as an ideal of the western male. Rotimi Fani Kayode revels in the poetic and physical beauty of the black male body as sexual object and agent, while Sunil Gupta imparts a feeling of both tenderness and brutality as he frames his shots of Exiles in Delhi to crop certain faces out.

In the works that focus on “Queering Masculinity”, we find subjects who use (sometimes literal) masks, costumes, play, and performance to deconstruct what we also project onto the objectified masculine ideal. David Wojnarowicz traverses New York in a mask of Arthur Rimbaud, while Catherine Opie and her lesbian friends dress up in a camp-ish male drag. Images from Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics break down the way that men in the 70s were appropriating the performance of archetypes, while other photographers consider gay men as everything that those types omit.

Beyond the physical reality of these subjects as they enact or reject different modes of masculinity are the physical spaces in which masculinity is codified. Karen Knorr’s images of gentlemen’s clubs are carefully cropped to uniform square tiles, paired with overhead snatches of conversation that read like a script, tightly framing power and performance as a kind of prison. Alongside these manicured spaces Mikhael Subotzky’s pictures of South Africa’s maximum-security prisons feel incredibly raw and alive, while Richard Mosse’s video work finds fraternity brothers engaging in a screaming match, eyes corpulent, blood vessels in their face as swollen as their necks. Ideas of space and place are explored too, in examinations of family, fathers and brotherhood. Kalen Na'il Roach exercises the power of the historian with his beautiful series “My Dad Without Everybody Else”, a collection of photos of an absent father vandalised with a potent mixture of emotions.

The final section of the Barbican’s show considers what happens when the male gaze is reversed, and women are doing the looking. Laurie Anderson’s “Fully Automated Nikon” series sees her wield her camera like a weapon, firing back at the men who catcall her in the street. What she discovers is that once they get over the discomfort of being called out, they are in fact quite pleased to be noticed: “By the time I started to shoot, they were posing. They seemed flattered, like taking their pictures was the least I could do.” For Sontag “the way that women and men really look (or allow themselves to appear) is not identical with how it is thought appropriate to appear to the camera”, and comparing Anderson’s series to the work of Marriane Wex showcases this quite remarkably. Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures is a work of gendered ‘kinesics’ that pairs street photography with imagery from adverts, newspapers, magazines, and historic works of art, breaking down gendered poses and behaviours. Set after set of neatly crossed legs make way for rows of wide-spread knees, male politicians cross their arms in power poses while women drape their wrists daintily over their skirts, girls gaze adoringly up at the partners who tower over them. You could read a lot of anger into the works of this final section, but there is value too in rejecting the idea that rage is inherently masculine.

Masculinity is slippery and multifaceted, and it can also be, in many iterations, incredibly dangerous. But it’s worth considering what is to be made of a term that takes us from work like Akram Zaatari’s lovingly restored negatives of Lebanese bodybuilders to Richard Billingham’s intimate portraits of his alcoholic father. Each of the sections of this show takes such a wide view that what ultimately emerges is the sense of an unmooring. Rather than attempting to coalesce a consensus on what masculinity means to us today, bringing these photographers together seem to be telling us how dangerous a consensus is. Sontag is right, in a sense, to be angry about the false promise of representation, and she is right too, to think about what the alternative might be: “Just as photography has done so much to confirm these stereotypes, it can engage in complicating and undermining them.”

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography runs at London’s Barbican from 20 February – 17 May 2020. The exhibition also has a schedule of programming around it, which includes talks and screenings