Photographing masculinities: gender, identity and the gaze

Historically, men's fashion has been subjected to strict rules and conventions, reflecting rank and identity. Today, ideas of masculinity are shifting in response to societal changes, questioning what it means to be 'male'.

The Parasol Foundation Women in Photography programme invited V&A curators Rosalind McKever and Marta Franceschini to select female or non-binary artists from the V&A's Photography collection who have explored masculine attire and appearance. Throughout art history, women depicted in artworks and photographs have been subjected to a male gaze – so what does it mean to look upon a man? And how does that gaze alter when we look from a female or non-binary perspective? From the formal Victorian styling of Julia Margaret Cameron's portraiture to subversions of modern masculinity through the gaze of artists such as Claude Cahun, Nan Goldin and Zanele Mulholi, this selection highlights fashion as a means of exploring one's identity, and how it is often used as an act of resistance or protest.

Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin is the protagonist of the scenes she documents. Photographing her life and relationships, she tells the stories of her 'extended family' of Bohemian friends, addicts, clubbers and lovers. In this image shot in Berlin, Germany, Drag Queen Misty (Miss Demeanor) is in the foreground, wearing a cropped blue wig and black dress, while Joey, another New York queen, stands in the doorway. Here, as in many of Goldin's photographs, the backstage of the club becomes the setting for intimate portrayals of people forcing the limits imposed by society. Their activism emerges from their attire, their attitudes. On and off stage, gender is a performance.

Misty and Joey at Hornstrasse, photograph, by Nan Goldin, 1992, Berlin, Germany. Museum no. E.53-1997. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Isabel Agnes Cowper

Isabel Agnes Cowper was the V&A's official photographer from 1868, having inherited the job from her brother, Charles Thurston. She documented all aspects of the museum, from grand architecture down to the intricate details, sometimes bringing her female gaze to the image of masculinity presented by the museum. At the time, casts of classical and Renaissance sculptures were considered essential educational tools to improve the public's taste in design, and they also perpetuated certain ideals of masculinity. Most famous among these was the five-metre-tall cast of Michelangelo's David, a male nude known for its proportions and exaggerated musculature. Cowper, however, chose to photograph not David's body, but his head, providing a unique, and sensitive viewpoint of a part of the sculpture not easily seen by museum visitors.

Cast of the head of Michelangelo's David, photograph, by Isabel Agnes Cowper, commissioned by the South Kensington Museum (V&A), about 1857, London, England. Museum no. 80551 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Julia Margaret Cameron

In the 1860s, Julia Margaret Cameron created photographic portraits with dramatic lighting, soft focus and tight compositions. She photographed her intellectual heroes, such as Alfred Tennyson and Henry Taylor, aiming to record "the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man". Quintessential to those outer features at the time was facial hair. Beards became fashionable in Britain following the Crimean War (1853 – 56), when the army permitted men to wear beards due to both the freezing temperatures and lack of shaving soap. The Victorian craze for facial hair led writer Charles Dickens to say of moustaches: "Without them, life would be blank".

Left to right: Alfred Tennyson, photograph, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865, England. Museum no. 1143-1963. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Charles Darwin, photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868, England. Museum no. 14-1939. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Claude Cahun

Claude Cahun was a French photographer and writer. Their work was both political and personal, and often played with the concepts of gender and sexuality. Cahun wrote: "Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me". Cahun made photomontages with their partner Marcel Moore (aka Suzanne Malherbe), to illustrate Cahun's autobiographical essay Disavowed Confessions (Aveux non Avenus). The photomontages feature self-portraits in masculine and feminine guises to show the artist's identity in flux. Like many surrealist works, they contain text and image: one French text reads, "Under this mask is another mask. I will never finish lifting these faces". In one image, Cahun's face is repeatedly reproduced alongside other photographic portraits and part of Michelangelo's sculpture of David. In another, two playing cards show the kind of dapper tailoring Cahun often posed in, which played a crucial role in their self-fashioning.

Left to right: Image of photomontage illustration from 'Aveux non Avenus' (Disavowed Confessions), photograph, by Claude Cahun, 1930, France. Museum no. E.715-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Image of photomontage illustration from 'Aveux non Avenus' (Disavowed Confessions), photograph, by Claude Cahun, 1930, France. Museum no. E.719-2005 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Corinne Day

Corinne Day's nonchalant, documentary-like style has been defined as 'dirty realism'. She contributed to, and captured, the minimalist fashion aesthetic which emerged in the 1990s, rejecting the maximalist silhouettes and power suits of the 1980s. In the '90s, fashion preferred the uncertainty of youthful bodies, the stark language of designers like Helmut Lang, and the isolated adolescent heroes that Raf Simons designed for, such as Christian Dior and Calvin Klein. This image was published as part of a fashion story, titled 'England's Dreaming', in the magazine The Face, August 1993. The model is either putting on or taking off a white t-shirt. Their pose, which conceals the model's identity but exposes their torso, makes the audience question what act is being performed, and the sentiment behind it.

Photograph, by Corinne Day, about 1992, England. Museum no. E.74-1997 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jennie Baptiste

Jennie Baptiste is a London-born photographer whose work explores fashion and style as expressions of Black British identity, often with a focus on youth culture and music. For this photograph, taken in her Brixton studio, she street-cast two men because she was interested in their tattoos. The shirtless figure on the left also sports fashionably low-slung jeans. This trend is thought to have started in the American prison system, where belts are banned, and quickly spread to youth culture. Its popularity in Britain was acknowledged in 2004 by British rap artist Dizzee Rascal in his lyrics: "I socialise in Hackney and Bow, I wear my trousers ridiculously low". The image also references 1980s and '90s designer underwear adverts, which gave models a sculptural appearance and focused on branded waistbands, often shot in black-and-white.

Brixton Boyz, photograph, by Jennie Baptiste, 2001, London, England. Museum no. Museum no. E.971-2010. © Jennie Baptiste

Zanele Muholi

As a queer non-binary artist working in South Africa, Muholi has centred LGBTQIA+ visibility in their work, collaborating closely with their community to reclaim agency and authenticity of representation. In the series Faces and Phases, Muholi aims to reflect a more representative society by photographing a wide spectrum of individuals, from soccer player to dancer, a scholar to a human rights activist. The portraits are pared-back, with clothing often providing the only hint to the identity of the sitter. Having been excluded from any formal gay rights movement until post-Apartheid, Muholi attempts to address the issues of violation and prejudice these communities still face.

Amogelang Senokwane, District Six, Cape Town, photograph, from the series 'Faces and Phases', by Zanele Muholi, 2009, Cape Town, South Africa. Museum no. E.427-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko

Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko's portrayals of post-apartheid South Africa shed a light on how Black people are reappropriating and reaffirming their identities through style. For Veleko, fashion is a tool of resistance, capable of expressing identity and subverting stereotypes. Fashion seems also to be the lens through which gender and race, and the relationship between the two, have been explored by the protagonists of Veleko's series Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, shot between 2003 and 2006 and printed in 2010. In the series, street style becomes a proud manifesto of many liberated identities.

Sibu VIII, photograph, from the series 'Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder', by Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko, 2003 – 06, South Africa. Museum no. E.421-2011. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Header image:

Image of photomontage illustration from 'Aveux non Avenus' (Disavowed Confessions), photograph, by Claude Cahun, 1930, France. Museum no. E.715-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London