Masculinity: Liberation through Photography @The Barbican, London

Men, boys, jocks, chaps, guys- males have been viewed in various guises through the decades, and the latest photography exhibition at the Barbican in London, has compiled a comprehensive and loosely grouped presentation of media representation since the sixties. 

You may snigger and giggle, as there are penises of all shapes and sizes, but the theory behind the show is that men are more than their parts. In a world where men are seemingly less liberated, with TV showing peacocking males with hairless, chiseled bodies on show on Love Island and ‘reality TV’, the truth is, in reality, men throughout history have been portrayed in many different forms. 

Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Consisting of imagery from over 50 artists, the exhibition is curated in an open plan format of rooms, films and audio, and visitors are invited to explore the myriad ways that image-makers have explored masculinity and its complex variations- opening with John Coplan’s oversized and rather bashful, naked self-portrait in four panels at the exhibition’s entrance. 

© Chicago Albumen Works

However, this is more than a sex show, it is a representation of men – through the female gaze and queer identity to depictions of black bodies, hypermasculinity, and fatherhood. Masculinity is explored through politics and men in power, families and the role of a man within one to stereotypical beefcake images, including Arnold Swarzenegger as a bulging bodybuilder, captured by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1976; to Akram Zaatari imposing images of Lebanese weightlifters, produced from damaged negatives, to  Jeremy Deller’s intriguing film ‘So Many Ways to Hurt You’, which shows Welsh-born wrestler Adrian Street, camping it up in unexpected circumstances. 

Taliban Portrait, Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2002, by Thomas Dworzak
THOMAS DWORZAK, TALIBAN PORTRAIT. KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN, 2002 © COLLECTION T DWORZAK/MAGNUM PHOTOS

From cliched cowboys and soldiers, which are represented by Taliban fighters posing holding hands, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes, to images of soldiers at war, it is a thorough exploration of manhood. From male models in the Andy Warhol film from 1979, Fashion: Male Models, to Sunil Gupta’s street photographs which sum up being gay in public on New York’s Christopher Street- the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, the vast collection shows all versions of men.

Female representation is dominated by Marianne Wex, who chooses to objectify manspreading in public and reclaim the space that belongs to women; while other stereotypes are explored with Catherine Opie’s‘ Being and Having’ – a series of images where members of the LGBTQ+ community sport false moustaches, tattoos and other ‘masculine’ accessories.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie. Photograph: © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

If you’ve ever wanted to linger of watching surfers slip out of their wetsuits on the beach, but didn’t dare, the  AustralianTracey Moffatt captured real men in her  1997 film ‘Heaven’, 1997; whereas Richard Mosse film ‘Fraternity’ compares the need for boys to fit in, as Yale students engage in blood-vessel- popping contest where the loudest, longest shouter wins a keg of beer.

Sunil Gupta ‘Untitled 22’ from the series ‘Christopher Street’ (1976) Image courtesy of the artist and Hales Gallery. © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Proving that there is no such thing as a stereotypical male, the exhibition has something that will resonate with every version of a male, and examines the variety of ways in which we see power relations between gender, class and race. 

See the exhibition at the Barbican until 17th May

Buy tickets here https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2020/event/masculinities-liberation-through-photography

Sara Darling is a freelance travel, fashion and lifestyle writer. In a previous life she was a fashion luvvie, but quit to follow her gypsy soul! When she is not clutching her passport, microphone or glass of fizz, she can be found avec snorkel in exotic oceans, scouring international flea markets for covetable jewellery, watching indie films or checking out photography exhibitions and wishing she could take a better picture. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Instagram on @wordsbydarling and @1stclassdarling

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