Bold claims in need of the softer side

John Barry (University College London) visits 'Masculinities: Liberation through Photography' at the Barbican in London.

When an exhibition is billed as Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, with publicity promising to touch on 'themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes', you might think about bracing yourself for something pretty radical. You might not however expect to find quite a few pleasantly interesting portraits, such as the series of bodybuilder photos from the 1940s, lent a metaphysically gritty quality thanks to damage to the negatives, or Deana Lawson’s photo of an unbreakable-looking father protectively holding his daughter. 

With over 300 photographs on display – plus a few videos – some parts of the exhibition seemed to try hard to 'spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity'. For example, in the Male Order: Power Patriarchy and Space section, there was a wall covered in pictures of film stars – from William Shatner to Lee Marvin to Eric Idle – in nazi costume. Presumably this high camp drama was at least partly tongue-in-cheek. One or two other sections seemed less consciously comic, especially the section on manspreading and armfolding, both of which are apparently pathologies caused by patriarchy. 

There was some homoerotic material, some transgender photos, cowboys, men in prison and men from various armies in various states of action or rest. Interestingly there were no men doing 'male-typical' jobs, such as construction, fishing, mechanics etc, but perhaps the covert message is that these are the kinds of roles that men are supposed to be liberated from. Nor were there pictures of men who have achieved extraordinary things, such as space exploration, but perhaps it’s old fashioned to see these achievements in terms of masculinity.

The section on Family and Fatherhood claimed to reflect on aspects of life such as 'misogyny, violence, sexuality' etc, but was mostly much less alarming, for example, a Richard Billingham study of an elderly alcoholic man being berated by a large tattooed woman. However, this was the section which hosted my favourite pictures: a series of dreamlike images, by Duane Michals, of a boy who sees the spirit of his dying grandfather leaving his body. These touching and ethereal pieces stood out in comparison to many of their more brash and polemical neighbours, which were less impactful and didn’t really to live up to the bold claims of, for example, revealing 'the mechanics of paternalistic power'. 

Presumably the idea of this exhibition is to demonstrate that there are many different ways to be a man besides being a cowboy or soldier. This concept has no doubt been liberating many men in the West since the 1960s, but in 2020 the point seems somewhat laboured. I would suggest that the radical conversation that we need to spark today is how to rediscover the positives about masculinity, especially the role of the father, which can be of such value to men, families, and the wider society that benefits from the stabilising influence of a good father. No jack boots, no misogyny, no terrifying patriarchy, just the good old fashioned love of a dad. 

- Dr John Barry is an Honorary Lecturer in Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology at the Faculty of Brain Sciences, University College London. He is Chair of the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society.

- The exhibition runs until 17 May.

Image: Sunil Gupta. Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976. Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery. © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

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