A Remarkable Meditation on Masculinity at the Barbican


Sam Contis. ‘Deep Springs’ series 2016

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at the Barbican is an exploration of male identity from the 1960s to the present day!  The subject is vast and being the Barbican, it’s a big show, taking up two levels of floor space and showcasing three hundred artworks from celebrity  photographers such as Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe, through to lesser known, younger artists, some of whom have never exhibited in the UK before.

Of course it’s high time there was an enquiry into maleness. According to writer, James Baldwin, the American state and indeed American cinema have a lot to answer for. At the entrance to the show he is quoted:  ‘It created ‘cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden – as an unpatriotic act- that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood’.

You could say women have had to face the same stereotyping but they have known how to fight back.

Males meanwhile have been less adept at organising themselves into protest groups. ‘Fathers for justice’  is the only one which springs to mind. It never had much oomph! Are men bad generally bad at voicing what they need?

Masculinities: Liberation through photography is a magnificent journey into maleness and the good news is, is that it doesn’t exclude women, for some of the most memorable images of the show is the work of women photographers.

The first floor tackled power and archetypes. The show opens with a section on the military. Photographer, Add Ness, focuses his lens on young Israeli soldiers sleeping on a coach. Their lips, full and pink accentuate their youth and innocence in slumber. Meanwhile a rifle butt juts out from the left hand side of the frame. Its close proximity to their heads overshadows the otherwise peaceful scene.

Vulnerability is an important theme in this section of the show.  A section entitled Cowboy introduced me to two very talented women photographers. Collier Schorr questions the cowboy’s toughness and ideal in her collages. Wary, fragile-looking young men or boys in cowboy attire stare out at you from the centre of the collage. Around them Schorr assembles images of black poverty and violence.

In sharp contrast, Sam Contis’s black and white images of young men are more lyrical and touching. Her series entitled Deep Springs, 2018, draws on the theme of the beautiful American Wild West. Students from an all male liberal arts college are photographed performing physical tasks, like digging a trench or cutting each other’s hair.  There are beautiful close ups of their exposed shoulders, which have built up muscle in the great outdoors. The photographs are erotically charged but the subtle printing (soft contrasts) give them a classical, timeless quality. Really beautiful!

There is also ambiguity here. One large colour image of a curly-headed young man ( Timothée Chalamet?) writing under an arbor, made me do a double-take. His V-necked top lead me to believe that I was eyeing the only girl admitted to the college. But no, here Contis captures the fluidity of gender, the femininity and softness we often see in young men. Painters like Bronzino have been capturing that very same phenomenon since the 16th century.

‘Arbor’ Sam Contis 2014

I  reluctantly leave that section and flit past the sports section. Devin however stops me in my tracks, taken by Catherine Opie. It shows a slim boy of around twelve, beefed up with shoulder pads. The deforming effect is accentuated in one so young. 

Rineke Dijkstra also taps into the downside of archetypal male roles. Her study of  bullfighters lead her to capture them immediately after their  exhausting bouts.  Her subjects resemble the living dead with their facial wounds and ghostly pallor.

I really enjoyed the theme of Family and Fatherhood.  Larry Sultan’s bright colour photographic biography of his father was full of love and compassion. In retirement he’s seen, swinging a golf club in his sitting room in front of the TV and staring at an empty swimming pool.

‘Empty Pool’ 1991 by Larry Sultan

The best shot was of him dressed in a dark suit and shiny shoes, sitting atop a quilted bed, in a claustrophobic room of heavily patterned wallpaper. This well-preserved, septuagenerian is clearly finding it hard to know where he fits in at home but we are surprised by a photograph of him helping his wife with a hoover! 

Fatherhood was a big theme as one would expect in all its guises. 

The second floor of the show was given over to men’s sexual liberation and homosexuality  Of particular note was Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977 in which he classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco. The colour and position of your handkerchief (right or left pocket) determined whether you were butch or passive. There was humour in his photographs but of course this is all over-shadowed by the coming of AIDS in the early eighties.

I cannot go before mentioning a young man named BJ Robinson who is a double amputee and wonderful model The black and white photographs of him taken by George Dureau in 1963 were quite stunning.

Untitled. Model BJ Robinson by George Dureau 1963


This show is a must for both men and women who enjoy great photography. The best material was by unknown photographers who have never exhibited here before. Their vision was the freshest as you would expect it to be.


Masculinities: Liberation through Photography at the Barbican is on until 17th May 2020

The exhibition is accompanied by a rich programme of films, talks and workshops. Website for full listings:  http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery

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