Jim French, “Untitled (Sailor)” (c. 1967-9), vintage Polaroid print (© Jim French. Courtesy of ClampArt and Antinous Press)

A guy walks past me on Carmine Street, and his shirt reads in large block letters, each word taking up a new line: MAN / UP / OR / SHUT / UP.

A quick Google search tells me that this style of large-type T-shirt sloganeering was pioneered by fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, whose signature tees have frequently imparted her left-leaning political convictions, including HIV/AIDS awareness with her more recent “WEAR A CONDOM” campaign. In Carmine Street Guy’s case, the conditions haven’t changed — the shirt looks like Hamnett could’ve designed it herself — but the coding is particular and crucial.

I recently became aware of the hashtag “#masculinitysofragile.” The words together felt poetic. Fragility is supposed to be the antithesis of masculinity, right? Masculinity mans up, doesn’t shut up. But browsing through the photos tagged with it online, I started to put together its logic. The images were mostly of products like men’s soap, men’s candles, men’s food, and men’s iPhone cases, packaged with sleek, sometimes fashionably antiquated graphic design in palettes of blue-gray. Signage for such products can often feel gendered, but the market here is conspicuously indicated as male. When the labeling is stripped away they are essentially the same products being marketed toward women at higher price points. I gather that for masculinity to function on a visual and psychological level today, its signifiers must be present more literally: on tee shirts, shampoo, and protein bars, and herein lies its fragility. Without the designation that a man wears this or eats that, the construct might fall apart.

I’m a photographer, and I’ve noticed that in the past year I’ve made many portraits of men, revealing to me an internal conflict between personal desire and a potentially unsafe cultural climate. Masculinity and maleness are major interests and qualms. I believe more and more that every pose is gendered, but how is masculine energy communicated in a picture today, as opposed to the past? Do similar tendencies arise? How can the boundless nature of gender identity be described in a picture? This is how I enter my work: questions whose answers can only be arrived at visually.

In my research I ordered a used copy of a Jim French photography book online, where I was given the option to receive my gay male erotica in blank, unsuspicious packaging. This might have been familiar to French, who was a mail-order salesman of his own erotic drawings of men, which he produced in the mid-60s, and one would assume his largest market was (is) also male. In French’s early drawings, the suggestion of gay activity had to be just that: suggestion, due to restrictions on sending such material through the mail. No frontal nudity, only a jock or posing strap, items now also available for purchase online as fetish gear.

An honorably discharged military man, French began this business with a friend after a successful career as an illustrator for Bergdorff Goodman and Nieman-Marcus. He took snapshots of models, which he then drew. According to a long interview in The Jim French Diaries: The Creator of COLT Studio (Bruno Gmunder, 2011) between French and the book’s editor, Robert Mainardi, his company was named after the phallic German pistol, Lüger. French would use a Polaroid camera in order to avoid the middleman of a photo lab to process imagery considered indecent at the time. The photos eventually became more synonymous with his name than the drawings, and throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, having by now started a new company called COLT Studio, he continued to use a classical sensibility to approach the male physique. The men are fantasy icons seemingly chiseled out of marble. Here, their masculinity is anything but fragile. The bodies depicted are provocative and desirable.

The tagline of the official Twitter account for “#masculinitysofragile” reads “If this hashtag offends you, you are part of the problem.” Browsing through some of the products photographed for the hashtag, I come across a “Man Cave-scented” candle. Its description reads: “Let’s up the ante on the last sacred place a man can be: The man cave.”

If manhood can ring true only in a sacred space, then its inhabitants are, frankly, deified, and intrusion upon that space would be unacceptable. By this logic French’s Polaroids depict a sort of man cave, and his publications constitute an off-limits boys’ club. The drawings that ensued from French’s snapshots were to be consumed in private, for select eyes only, since they were subscription-based, marketed toward a gay male audience. Furthermore, the models’ alignment with now hackneyed male archetypes like construction workers and cops, in a way, confirm masculinity’s fragility. I’m mildly heartbroken to discover that we might need, on some level, that macho straight-guy caricature to take comfort in the fact that, yes, we are men.

But there can certainly be power in the assertion of a queer sexuality, in the articulation of one’s desire. Learning the language of that desire is not a singular path, and, to play devil’s advocate, French’s images can rightfully populate some of them, be they trite or timeless. In later works, the models recall the attributes of Greek gods (homo cultural undertones intended), only cementing this deification, and reinforcing the idea that their environment is sacred. French, like the men’s candle company, suggested a private world, where his inhabitants are an elite. In 2013, Antinous Press published Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor: Jim French Polaroids, which was accompanied by an exhibition at ClampArt in New York. As sources for future drawings, the pictures feel spontaneous and uninhibited, but also secretive, made in a makeshift studio. The Polaroids, at least in 2015, feel blatantly homoerotic — leather and the confident splaying of rear ends abound. But the men look hyper-masculine, downright hetero. French would go on to take pictures that spoke the language of the normative ideal (straight, white, conventionally impeccable) men, and oftentimes the models themselves were straight. I shudder at the remark by photographer Mark Henderson, who, in his foreword to The Jim French Diaries, deemed French’s now coined “Colt Man” as “a god-like symbol of a type of ideal manhood that has become an enduring part of the gay cultural ethos.” Jim French in effect hijacked a straight visual language, subtly coding it for a gay audience.

Regardless, the process does seem tender and intimate, coded in a more individual desire. In interviews with French recounting his nearly 40-year-long career, it becomes clear that the male form — its possibility of gesture and attitude, both collectively and personally with each man portrayed — is his consistent passion and investment. In his coding, French offers us a new language in which men might be seen and consumed. A power structure is inevitable here, especially given the profit motive of the images, but both depicter and depicted seem powerful, their gazes reciprocal.

In one Polaroid, a man in gun holsters stands facing the backside of another, nude except for a cowboy hat, who straddles a cheap folding chair. The dom holds back the sub’s arms, his tooled leather boot planted in the middle of his partner’s arched back. The gesture is not subtle, but its amateur setting and execution has a kind of preciousness, a fragility that nonetheless creates a palpable tension. At first it’s puzzling that the themes explored in the early Polaroids seem just as present in the realm of heterosexual sex imagery — ideas of dominance versus submission and role playing — as if French had directly appropriated them. In their parallels to straight erotica, these pictures invoke the nascence of a gay sensibility, suggesting the space they might take up.

Jim French, “Untitled (Cowboys),” (c. 1967-9) Vintage Polaroid print (© Jim French. Courtesy of ClampArt and Antinous Press)

The lines of censorship and genre are also fragile. The differences between French’s early photographs — amateur, never intended for viewership outside of the drawing studio—and the glossy, mass-produced ones of the COLT era, represent a move toward the modern editorial-style photo shoot, as well as the growth of an artist. Looking chronologically at his published photography books, including The Jim French Diaries and the aptly titled Masc. (State of Man, 1999), French’s artistic sentiments become more dynamic, his compositions more thoughtful and delicate. These convictions don’t seem to have been sacrificed in the interest of making salable photographs. He’s now known as the man who set the standard for gay male erotica, but also seems to have an earnest, objective understanding of the male body and how to compose with it. Looking at –the mild, amateur kink of the Polaroid studies next to his full-color centerfold spreads of burly, oiled biceps is both a little laughable and a little haunting. It’s all in the coding.

French carries an arsenal of reference material in his posing of the figure: the bent knee and foot, the contraposto stance. They match the men’s looks and physiques well. The images talk the talk of male beauty standards set forth as early as Greek sculpture, ever limiting a potential scope of what consumable, marketable beauty can be, and further legitimizing the off-limits boys’ club. One spread in Masc. depicts a single model in two frames, one from the front and one from behind. He stands between marble columns, drawing up connotations of towering marble men. He does tower, his body bronzed and veiny. In the pose on the left, in which his back is to the viewer, French’s use of light and shadow sculpts the model’s trapezius and delts. One foot in front of the other like a kouros figure, he stands full-frontal on the right. His face is in shadow, and here we realize that he is an object. While a certain degree of tenderness is required to take such pictures, French is still selling a product. There isn’t some queer purity to the work. Masculinity is the commodity, and its worship is what sells it.

These corresponding front-and-back poses powerfully suggest a sort of collective unconscious in regard to images of men. I can’t help but wonder if French requested these traditional bodybuilder-esque gestures in order to apply them to homoerotic territory, or if the model assumed them without having to be instructed. They aren’t unlike stances you might see in a commercial physique shoot. Masculinity wins here. It mans up, doesn’t shut up.

In an extended interview with French that runs throughout Jim French Diaries, editor Robert Mainardi persistently inquires about the role of, well, role, in the now 83-year-old photographer’s pictures. Although the role he defines is traditionally virile, his thoughtful response implies both self-awareness and an understanding of queer identity:

I have no doubt that ten or twenty years from now a lot of my work will seem dated, too, because the gay subculture isn’t so “sub” any more and the stereotypes of masculinity are pretty much gone. There’s always going to be a sexy sailor. That’s not going to change. But I think the perception of masculinity now doesn’t require stereotypes any more. I think you can find masculinity in lots of ways.

Even when steeped in the mores of a culture that vacillates in its manufacturing of what I should find hot, the bodies in French’s photographs are a marvel. Even if my personal language of desire leads me to the male-identifying body as an artistic subject, I want to acknowledge the futility of expressing its masculinity in a picture. I have my qualms about French’s pictures, because regardless of the marveling, they continue to align with the “MAN / UP” guy, the people who sold him the shirt, and the potentially harmful environment they suggest. But I can’t deny that the photographs are strong, arousing, and made by a gay man, so I continue to marvel, but also continue to challenge and question my marveling. I have to believe the pictures are resistant in some way to commodified maleness, that fragility and masculinity can coexist.

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Ian Lewandowski

Ian Lewandowski is a photographer born in Northwest Indiana, and presently living and working in Brooklyn. He holds a B.F.A. degree in photography & art history from Pratt Institute, and also studied...