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Carolyn Drake, Exposing The Male

In “Men Untitled”, photographer Carolyn Drake turns her lens on men, questioning the “male gaze”. A show on view at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson until January 14, 2024.

“This is something I wouldn’t have dared to do when I was younger, but at fifty, some men don’t really see you as a woman, and this fact fortifies my imagination”

Drake’s work is first and foremost the fruit of anger – a dull anger towards the man she didn’t know how to say no to when she was a teenager, sunbathing alone on the beach; towards the guy at university who called her a “whore” after abusing her while she was unconscious; toward her fear of walking alone in the streets of the United States. It’s an anger rooted in her past experiences: the inability to reject a man during her teenage years while sunbathing on the beach, the derogatory remarks made by a college peer who took advantage of her while she was unconscious, and the fear she felt walking alone on the streets of the United States.

This anger extends beyond personal experiences and encompasses her resentment towards the larger patriarchy, serving as a vital driving force in her artistic endeavors. In the epilogue of her book, Drake reveals that her unresolved fear of men led her to organize portrait sessions where she requested male subjects to undress for her photographs. “This is something I wouldn’t have dared to do when I was younger,” she writes in the preface to the accompanying book Men Untitled (TBW Books), “but at fifty, some men don’t really see you as a woman, and this fact fortifies my imagination.”

Photographic intimacy

Drake, whose previous series, Knit Club, focused on a group of women in Mississippi, challenges conventional representations of nudity in the photographs on view here: her subjects are frail bodies marked by time, wrinkles, and sagging skin. In contrast to clichés of male virility, the subjects of her photographs are usually older, often overweight men whom she refuses to idealize. Her aim is to explore a masculinity in decline. She photographs the men slouched on a couch, wading through mud, or suspended by their feet in what appears to be a garage. One can’t help but feel sympathy for these vulnerable, sometimes ridiculous men. In both a literal and figurative sense, they are laid bare, and our perception of masculinity is challenged.

Reflection in Pond, after Cahun (John D), 2022 © Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos
Reflection in Pond, after Cahun (John D), 2022 © Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos

What makes someone a man or a woman? This question is an underlying motif in Drake’s photographs. She tackles gender identity issues more broadly in what she calls her “inner world.” It consists of a small enclave in the exhibition space in which the men are no longer the main protagonists. The artist becomes the subject, staging herself in black-and-white self-portraits. Stripped of feminine signifiers, she blurs the boundaries of gender, questioning her own gender identity and observing in a text accompanying the exhibition that this work “dissects all these internal questions, adding, “My body is a tool of expression rather than a reflection of a fixed identity.” 

The walls are covered with a “wallpaper of misogyny”: pages of the book Glorify Yourself, a beauty and seduction manual by Eleanor King that enjoyed great success in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. The book’s idea was to encourage women to conform to beauty standards and stereotypical gender roles. The table of contents included items like Attractive Legs, A Graceful Walk, Sitting Technique, and Dieting for Size, and Drake photographed herself re-enacting poses from the book. More than a critique of patriarchy and the values of that era, this work is an act of introspection.

Cover image: Man on All Fours (John D), 2022 © Carolyn Drake / Magnum Photos

The exhibition runs at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris until January 14, 2024.

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