Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Capturing Masculinity

“Are you masculine?”

Well, are you? Because if you are, Chad States wants to take your picture.

A photographer based in Philadelphia, States used this opening question in a Craigslist ad to gather subjects for his recent most recent photo project. Curious as to what defines masculinity and the ways in which individuals project their own manhood, States snapped images of over a dozen individuals who wished to be captured in “their most masculine moments”. The result is a wide span of men, women and transgenders whose presentations are strikingly personal, varied and surprising.

Going in to look at the photos, I was not expecting variety or surprise. Even having read a review prior to viewing, I expected most of the photos to emulate the visual advertisements we see in our own culture; muscular, polished, shirtless men engaging in a sort of rough and gruff activity. And without a doubt, a large portion of the pictures and captions actually do contain at least the tiniest traces of dominant masculinity. Some of the subjects, in fact, are shirtless and muscular. Others stand tall, scowling with folded arms. For others, it is their language and opinions that reinforce traditional masculine ideals. Franco, for example, says that “to be a masculine is to dominate in one’s field of study” while John Peters explains he is masculine because “he is fiercely competitive.”

But there was something about the photos, even the traditionally masculine ones, that defied the images of manhood we are fed in everyday media. For example, almost all the photos (with a few exceptions) appear to be taken in the subjects’ homes. It is rare to see men photographed their own personal yet domesticated spaces. But as an interview with States implies, we have every reason to believe that the subjects chose these locations. And this is the unusual part. These subjects had control over how and where they wanted to be photographed. As States explained, he gave his subjects no instructions; they were free to dress and pose however they wanted. Thus, these subjects are being documented in their most masculine moments, but they are projecting their masculinity in ways that that they see fit and that they determine. Though many seem to have been at least slightly influenced by societal definitions of manhood, their display of manhood and their perceptions of manhood are still based on the individual. And it is that very concept that makes these photos look unlike any masculine images we have seen before.

Take Greg for example. Greg is stretched out on his bed, stomach down, completely nude. His caption reads, “I feel most masculine when I am lying in bed naked.” In a society where the media portrays men as powerful and firm, ready to fight, Greg’s is an image that feels unusual in its in its presentation of vulnerability. And not just its vulnerability, but Greg’s seemingly casual attitude about it. However, I admired this image because it’s take on masculinity is unlike any I had seen in the mainstream (when was the last time we saw Bruce Willis posing like this to advertise a “Die Hard” movie?). More importantly, however, this was a version masculinity I had not encountered before precisely because it was Greg’s version. It is through snapshots like these that one realizes masculinity means more than one thing to many different people.

But at the end of the day, these photos are still photos. In the same way that subjects were given freedom to pose and dress however they wished, they were also setting up and creating scenes where they could look and feel their most masculine. In other words, very much like mainstream advertisements, these photos are still images that are constructed; they are specifically designed to portray a precise feeling and message (the difference is that this message is catered to the subject’s idea of masculinity, not that of the photographer). This is not to say that these subjects aren’t masculine or “real men” the rest of the time. It does however point out that masculinity itself is constructed, either by the society or the individual subject. It does not just spring up on its own, but someone has to take the step to define it. The question is, who do we want defining masculinity? Or, do we really need a definition at all?

Perhaps we would all do well to remember these questions more often, whether we are assessing the subjects in State’s pictures, the images in advertisements, or even the men in our own lives.

For further information, all of the photos are on the photographer’s website (please know that some of the photos feature nude subjects)

Here is an interview featuring Chad States and some of the photos.
http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/galleries/men_at_their_most_masculine/ Share

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:01 AM

    loved it. and very interesting to read. thanks