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Men Untitled: An Interview with Carolyn Drake

Book Store Interview Men Untitled Photographs by Carolyn Drake Interview by Britland Tracy “If you listen closely to almost any human being who has recently acquired a dreamhouse, certain noises will emerge once the welcoming dog-and-pony show comes to a close and the cheese plates disappear..."

Men Untitled by Carolyn Drake.
Men Untitled
Photographs by Carolyn Drake
Interview by Britland Tracy

TBW Books, Oakland, 2023. Unpaged, 9x11¾".

Recipient of the 2021 HCB Award, Carolyn Drake levels her gaze on myths of American male power in her newest photo-book and accompanying exhibition, Men Untitled, which opened at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in September. Portraits of men encountered and often befriended read like past-their-prime Renaissance statues, if Michelangelo had put David out to pasture for forty years before gently bending him over on all fours. Evocative objects whose symbolic relevance extend generations serve as punctuating double-entendres. The cultural reckoning at play is both visceral and encrypted. I had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn at her book talk in Paris and engaging in the following conversation.

Britland Tracy: These images are complicated — both in the book and on the wall. It would be easy to say that you are reversing the male gaze by photographing these men on your terms and in various states of undress. But rather than sexualizing them for visual consumption, as male artists have historically represented women, you’re placing them in positions that oscillate between tenderness and exploitation; vulnerability and playful absurdity. Some of them appear Herculean; some are Sisyphean. How did you find that balance?    

Carolyn Drake: I am a 52-year-old woman who has internalized a lot of personal and political rage over the years, most recently in response to the #MeToo movement and the U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion rights. My hormonal impulses are also shifting. I wanted to channel all that onto the men: how can I subjugate the male body, and how will that look and feel to me?   

But on the other hand, photography for me is a way of connecting and empathizing with other people. So as I played with how it felt to look down on men and to mangle and twist and direct their bodies, I also found tenderness and began to see the ways they were fragile, and not at all fulfilling masculine stereotypes.   

I also wanted to look at the myths connected to masculine ideals, but without perpetuating them. The images are constructed, posed. I did not want to insinuate any of this as natural, so the feeling of staging and performance was important to me. 

BT: I imagine that the power dynamics you navigated for this work were quite different from the approach you took with your last book, 
Knit Club, which centered around a community of women in rural Mississippi. There seems to be a tension between collaboration and compromise with your subjects in Men Untitled. For example, you promised Wallace, one of the main ‘characters’, the centerfold, but only if you posed for him first. Can you speak to these dynamics a bit?   

CD: One of the main differences in the way I approached the men as photographic subjects is that I wanted to expose the vulnerability of their bodies and lay them bare. Whereas in Knit Club I searched for other ways to explore bonds and identities.   

Wallace is a character I got to know pretty well over many photo shoots. Before he passed away in 2022, he ran a motorcycle club next to his house, and the inside, notably, was wallpapered floor to ceiling and all over the ceiling with centerfolds from Penthouse and Playboy magazines that he had collected over the years. This was always something on my mind when I visited his house to photograph him, so when one day he showed me an old picture he had taken of an ex-girlfriend, I knew I wanted to ask him if he would be willing to pose for me in the same position. He agreed to let me photograph him hanging upside down from a hook like a piece of meat only if I would also, and it felt natural for me to agree to it. What I chose not to do is publish the image he took of me. That final decision of what to show is where my power resides. This is about me authoring male bodies, not the reverse.

The women in Knit Club didn’t demand anything in return. They respected my authority as the photographer. The men sometimes asked for money to be photographed. Maybe there’s some irony in that.  

BT: You include a lot of still life images that serve as signifiers of heteronormative masculinity: guns, shop tools, fire, horses, centaurs, swords, etc.; but you also include a corset mannequin, a dramatically lit tapestry, a nod to the “hidden mothers” of Victorian-era portraiture, as well as an actual self-portrait. What inspired this combination of gendered iconography?

CD: My images contain these signifiers but I am tweaking the way they are displayed. My piano, a symbol seen a lot in depictions of 19th century gender relations, is burning to ash. I multiply guns using mirrors. I stick swords in the ground and compare their sizes. In all of this imagery, I’m overtly pushing and pulling at gender constructs. I draw on dated gender symbols because I think they still inform where we are now.   

BT: You sought out what appear to be cis-men ‘of a certain age’ as models for this project, bypassing youth and queer identities altogether. Why? 

CD: The men weren’t all cis, actually, but I didn’t distinguish one way or another in the image titles. It’s not a project about youth culture and the diversification of gender identities. It’s about my feelings toward old guard gender structures whose power remains entrenched, and about how I too relate to individual people on that spectrum.  Part of why I worked mostly with older men was that I wanted to see masculine strength in decline.  

BT: The role of text in this book is subtle yet powerful. I enjoy the way you circumnavigate the rote artist statement and instead leave us with an image list and a series of unsettling vignettes from your own past experiences with men, tucked away inside the epilogue. The titles listed on the back cover and the endpapers serve as both index and map legend for the ineffable portraits that precede them. Descriptions such as “Still Life, Male Anatomy on Velvet Chair”, “Bottom Half of Mythical Figure”, “Dartboard Halo (Bill)”, and “Man on All Fours (John D)” almost read like a list of trophies, subverting victim and victor. Did the written components guide your creative process, or vice-versa?   

CD: The ideas for the images came first. For example: while trying to see men as animals, I brought John D. into the woods and asked him to pose as a deer so I could ‘shoot’ him. We had to do the shoot twice because the first time around he didn’t look enough like an animal.  For “Dartboard Halo”, I had been studying a women’s beauty and charm guide from the 1940s. In one image, a cutout of a woman’s head in front of a circle is tilted back with an open mouth. I invited Bill to stand in front of a dartboard in his studio and mimic her posture.    

The image list provides ideas for how to read the images. I put it at the end, so they can be read all together, at once, and so I could stack them on top of each other to form a suggestive shape.   

I also like what you say about subverting victim and victor. I am not trying to win anything here. I want to deflate a set of power dynamics that we’re invested in, often without realizing it. It sounds heavy, but hopefully the work also rings with a bit of humor.   

BT: Speaking of the personal self-disclosures in the back of the book, I’d like to talk about anger. It is a word that you’ve used to describe the impetus for photographing men in the American South, and there is a palpable indignation that builds from one image to the next. Anger is an emotion that women are often pressured to soften, but you seem to embrace it as an activating force for this project. The violations you recount in the epilogue certainly warrant this response. What is your relationship to anger toward men, and has it changed through the process of creating this body of work?  

CD: In the text at the back of the book, I wrote about Christine Blasey Ford, who spoke publicly about being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh as he was on the verge of becoming a U.S. Supreme Court Justice (and subsequently repealing abortion rights for women). In the public hearing, Kavanaugh’s anger was palpable, while Ford’s was concealed. It should have been the reverse.  On top of that, the succession of public disclosures by women during the #MeToo movement triggered memories of past personal experiences that fueled more anger. Women’s bodies do carry anger, so it is absolutely something I wanted to channel into the work. 

I had to let myself feel two things at once while making this project — anger I had boxed in and the empathy needed to make human portraits. One of the things they remind you in psychotherapy is that contradictory feelings can coexist.  

Regarding geography, the American South is where I began, but I eventually decided that the project is not about a particular region. It’s about an American brand of patriarchy and its strange attachment to white penises. 

BT: There are a number of references to iconic male artists from the past, from Eadweard Muybridge to Peter Hujar to E.J. Bellocq to Caravaggio. Do you see yourself in conversation with or resistance to these men, or somewhere in between?   

CD: Most of the time I’m somewhere in between. I wanted to resist Muybridge’s “scientific” view of gender difference. In his motion studies, nude women pour vases of water over each other while nude men have sword fights. I wanted to subvert that science.    

While I am in awe of the sensuality of Peter Hujar’s nudes, I have to confess that my point of view is different. My male bodies don’t hold that amount of erotic energy.   

I’m also interested in the work of female artists like Ishiuchi Miyako, Collier Schorr, Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman, Claude Cahun, Ana Mendieta. And the ways that Laura Larson and Ahndraya Parlato have recently used writing in their photo books.   

Men Untitled opened at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris in conjunction with the book publication, within a country where most civilians do not have the right to bear arms and a language in which words like ‘debonair’ and ‘suave’ were invented to describe men with sexual prowess rather than say, ‘rugged individualism’ or ‘lone wolf’. Has the process of exhibiting and speaking about this project abroad affected the way you think about this particular brand of American masculinity?    

CD: The work stems from the inclinations of an American, but a lot of people in France are exposed to American ideals of masculinity through Hollywood films, so I think ‘rugged individualism’ is not totally unfamiliar in the French context. And Americans can also feel the appeal of a suave French man.  I think maybe showing the work in France helped me take a step back and see it more from the outside. And also step back from the emotions, which I’m still pretty wound up in.

BT: The final image depicts a man curled toward the ground in a duck-and-cover stance, wearing nothing but a pair of sneakers. Is this an act of contrition? Repentance? Protection? Cowardice? It feels like a definitive last word. 

CD: I see the curled man both as an infant and as someone bracing for punishment. It reminded my publisher of Wolfgang Tillmans’ picture Like Praying. When the meaning is not directly spelled out, the viewer can draw their own conclusion. 

On the very last page of the book, we almost included a mold of a human figure that is either waving farewell or calling for help. We cut it out at the last minute. Either image could have become the definitive last word.

Carolyn Drake’s exhibition Men Untitled is on view at the Fondation HCB in Paris through January 14th, 2024.

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Britland Tracy is an artist and educator from the Pacific Northwest whose work engages photography, text, and ephemera to observe the intricacies of human connection and discord. She has published two books, Show Me Yours and Pardon My Creep, and exhibited her work internationally. She holds a BA in French from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Colorado, where she continues to teach remotely for the Department of Critical Media Practices while living in Marfa, Texas.