The Bare Men series by New York based photographer, Abigail Ekue challenges the power bias of the ‘male gaze’ when nudity and eroticism are explored.
In this significant body of work, nude male subjects are the ‘objects’ of the ‘female gaze’ and notions of, power and what ‘we’ consider the ‘norm’ become ideas we consider, explore and at times battle with-depending of course on certain variables.
While of course those variables are present, Ekue’s exploration as she details is less about eroticism (the eroticism is evidently subjective to the viewer) and more about that subjective and agitated state of ‘the gaze’.
We have to ask about your history and your relationship with photography-what feelings did and does photography evoke in you?
Photography is a way for me to tell stories, remember stories and remember the emotions of the moment. I am drawn to any image that’s evocative, an image which makes you feel what the subject is feeling or has you questioning what was happening when the image was shot. Even in my self-portraits, I like there to be a feeling – but it doesn’t have to be deep or profound-any emotion will do. I get asked a lot what was going on between my subject and I when I took the image because of the expression I’m able to capture. If someone feels the need to know what went on before and after the image was taken, I think that’s good, it puts the viewer into that moment.
In your biography, it states New York inspires you-elaborate on the power of this city to inspire creativity.
People from all walks of life and from all over the world live and play in NYC. There are so many cultures here, rich, poor, 24 hour businesses. There are so many stories here and so much to overhear in NYC. Everyone has a story. As a writer and photographer, I like to know those stories.
Is this an irrelevant question but being a black female and a photographer are you (and others like you) breaking some new ground-indeed what trials and tribulations have you been through in a pursuit to get your work out there?
Any obstacles I have faced has come about due to the fact that I shoot male nudes with full-frontal nudity. Folks ain’t ready but I do see a shift in that. It’s becoming accepted by more people and I like to believe Bare Men is the reason for that shift.
Your Bare Men series is interesting as it seems to change a usual power dynamic you as a black female are the photographer and it is the men who are being voyeuristically viewed-just explain a bit about the inspiration and rationale behind the series?
The inspiration behind Bare Men….well I had not seen any editorial nude photography featuring men. I wanted to shoot photo essays on each man, that’s how the images were originally presented. As the series grew, I saw that many of the images could stand on their own. Shooting one-on-one with men allowed the men to relax and that enabled that voyeuristic style of some of the photographs; they are comfortable enough that they do things they’d normally do when alone. The fact that I’m a black woman is an ‘issue’ because the majority of the men I’ve worked with so far are not black. It’s the female gaze vs the male gaze, it’s not necessarily about power. Consider this: does someone have more power because they’re clothed with someone who is nude or is the person that is comfortable/daring/willing to be nude in front of someone more powerful? *
Your remit for models at the moment seems to resist the stereo typical images of ‘male’ beauty.
First and foremost, I choose men based on who is willing to pose nude and have their faces visible in the images. If a man who “looks like a model” wants to be in the series that’s fine. He wouldn’t be turned away because he was stereotypically beautiful. I’m not choosing men because some people may think they aren’t stereotypically beautiful. Men contact me to be in the series. I have asked men to be in the series without seeing them nude – I’m not choosing men based on their bodies. I also choose men based on their attitudes and how they approach the Bare Men series and their professionalism and respect towards me.
You also request transgender men explain your reason for that request and did any participate?
I haven’t had the opportunity to work with any transgender men for the series yet. I was getting a lot of questions about who can participate – age, race, body type etc. – so I made it clear on my website who was eligible to be in Bare Men. Trans men live as men. Some have had gender reassignment surgery, some haven’t. I’m sure some trans men would like the opportunity to share who they are in nude art, in a series like mine where they aren’t Photoshopped or hidden.
Full frontal female nudity seems less shocking in some respects than male full frontal nudity.
Why should there be a double-standard when it comes to nudity? Why do we see full-frontal female nudity more than full-frontal male nudity? It’s because most of the ‘rules’ and ‘standards’ of society were created by men. So, in art, what is considered beautiful, desired or acceptable is what men (usually heterosexual) want to see-everything shouldn’t be filtered through the male gaze.
You speak about a ‘Greek troupe’ just elaborate a bit more on that?
Men in Greek statues are usually presented as very muscled and tone and in active poses that highlight strength and athleticism or a male stoic nature. When the penis is visible it’s very small and flaccid. Not all men have the muscular build deemed suitable for men or ‘god-like’. Not all men have small or less-than-average penises. The reason the Greeks included small penis in art is because it was considered more refined; men with larger penises were carnal versus intellectual. To say that, is to say that only men who looked a certain way were the ideal men – physically and intellectually.
Wanted you to discuss the poses that the men are in-why and what was your reasoning behind those poses?
I have no reasons behind my poses. Majority of the poses are poses that came natural to the men – they pose and I take the photo. There are very few conceptual images. The ones that are more obviously posed – Midnight Snack, Caged, Tunnel – for example are the man and I getting creative with the space we’re in. Even in cases like that, I am working with a man who is spontaneous, creative, funny, daring or outgoing and I’m able to capture that-Bare Men is all about capturing men as they are.
What have you learnt or indeed what has surprised you about shooting males for nude shoots?
Men have body image issues and angst about their image. Many have never posed nude before because there aren’t many opportunities for men in nude art but also there a lot of confident men out there who relish the opportunity to show-off for the camera.
Explain a bit more as well about the B Roll edition of the Bare Men series.
The Bare Men: The B Roll ebook is a small selection of images from the series that were not included in the series. After shooting for 4 years, I undoubtedly have thousands of images. Many photos are included in the (500-page) hardcover book but there are some that would have felt extraneous in the book but they are photographs that can stand on their own. I compiled some of those into the ebook as a supplement or as a primer. Bare Men: The B Roll includes editorial, art and erotic images. Many are the images that were captured right before or right after the more famous photos from the series.
You state you are currently on a hiatus on the Bare Men project but you will restart explain how if it will change in terms of the remit?
Yes, Bare Men is ongoing. But I had to take a break to work on publishing the book, promoting the series, designing the layout for Bare Men: The B Roll, and to prevent burnout. It’s very important that artists practice self-care. Everything up to this point was out of pocket. For the next phase of the series, the men will have to pay a participation fee but nothing else changes – men in the series still receive copies of their photos, prints and the length of the photo shoot remains that same.
Briefly let’s talk about your other photographic projects just breakdown some of them. What projects are in the pipeline-what can we look forward to?
I also shoot editorial portraits for private clients. Those shoots are clothed, nude or erotic. As of the time of this printing, I don’t have any personal or commissioned projects coming up. I’m sure I’ll still do work on my Lighting Up series but that isn’t a primary project.
*That’s an interesting one Abigail-maybe we will throw this out to the readers of #itchysilk-who has the power in that dynamic and is it indeed about power?