Anonymous, “First time” (2017) (image courtesy Critique My Dick Pic)

The unsolicited penis photo is a much-maligned feature of modern dating, but Critique My Dick Pic isn’t about shaming the men who send them. The tagline of this Tumblr, running since 2013, is “critiquing your dick pics with love.” The aim is to offer witty reviews of the composition of these photos, from the lighting to the angle, from the colors to the use of props. Each critique ends with a letter grade.

The photo above is a recent example of an A grade.

The review ran:

this is a subtle dick pic — or, rather, dick print — with a strong impact, sender.

you’ve completely flipped the usual angle and pose – a log, basically – and the over-the-shoulder, full body shot is refreshing and effective. the inclusion of the lower portion of your face adds humanity and intrigue to your picture, and the lighting, framing and drape of the covers are all well-considered.

overall, it’s a very good shot, sender.

thank you for submitting to critique my dick pic. your dick pic gets an A.

The one-woman band behind the site is Madeleine Holden, a New Zealand lawyer and journalist now living in Berlin. Every day, Holden receives at least 30 dick pics from around the world and evaluates them with her careful eye.

To change things up, I sent her a batch of artists’ photographs of male nudes, ranging from the late 19th century to today, and asked her if she could assign them a Critique My Dick Pic-style review and grade. Her answers provide a tongue-in-cheek look at what has (and hasn’t changed) over the decades in the way that nude male bodies have been photographed. Here are the takeaways from our conversation:

1. Dick pics are a broader category than popularly imagined. According to Holden, they don’t have to be straight, zoomed-in shots of penises, taken selfie-style. In fact, the only rules of a dick pic, in our critic’s mind, are that they’re “penis-oriented” and taken of a single individual. This means that a dick pic (or a classic male nude) doesn’t even have to be erotic in intent. It can be reflective, as in Thomas Eakins’s 1885 portrait of a man (popularly believed to be Walt Whitman).

Thomas Eakins, “Portrait of an old man in the nude” (ca. 1885) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Although I normally prefer a single shot, sender, you’ve created an interesting portrait with a contemplative tone. The shots are a little on the blurry side and the poses feel somewhat staged, but, nevertheless, it engages the eye. Your dick pic gets a B.

Dick pics can also be political. Consider Dash Snow’s 2007 image, “Untitled (Saddam dick).” This is a good representation of Snow’s defiantly un-pretty, deliberately unpolished style. A seemingly random collection of objects, including a picture of Saddam Hussein, sits next to a harshly lit set of genitals. The photograph almost dares its viewers to excavate a meaning out of this assemblage.

This is essentially a log with a few additional flourishes, sender. The human skull and photograph of Saddam Hussein are intriguing, but ultimately your dick pic falls flat due to the lackluster angle and framing. Your dick pic gets a C-.

2. Subtlety and context matter. Holden tells me that, broadly speaking, “women are looking for more subtlety than men think we are. Zoom out a little bit and show some of the rest of your body. We’re not interested in logs and extreme close-ups of just your genitals. We tend to prefer a bit of the rest of you in the shot for context and some narrative and some indication that you’re actually thinking of us, you’re not just bragging about your size.”

In keeping with such advice, Eadweard Muybridge‘s famous photographic experiments of the 1870s and 1880s, which captured different states of movement, create a kind of conversation between the viewer and subject. Each photo captures a fleeting anatomical moment before the body changes shape, making us wonder what preceded and what will follow each image.

Eadweard Muybridge, “Animal locomotion: an electro-photographic investigation of consecutive phases of animal movements” (1872-1885) (image courtesy USC Digital Library)

Your dick pic contains movement and narrative, sender, which is a plus; and your pose is active and engaging. It’s a grainy, low-res shot, but the framing, angle and lighting have been well considered. Your dick pic gets a B+.

Holden also approves of the narrative effect created by Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Dennis Speight” (1983). This is a spare, black-and-white photo of a young, muscular man gripping a set of branches. The penis is less confrontational than it is in other Mapplethorpe photos. Here, both literally and figuratively, it isn’t the center of the image.

This is a simple and effective dick pic, sender. The lighting is expertly considered and the prop is an interesting narrative feature. The tone is stark and subdued, and while it’s not an overtly sexual shot, it is striking. Your dick pic gets an A.

3. It’s hard to get away from the male gaze, even with photos of naked men. So many of the well-recognized photographers of male nudes are men — often men attracted to other men. Just one of these is fitness photographer Bob Mizer, whose 1972 work “Rick Gordon, rooftop studio, Los Angeles” is artfully puzzling. (Much of the gay photography after World War II developed through fitness magazines because the homoerotic content could be somewhat disguised.) It centers on a slight, young man who appears to be on a “great outdoors” movie set: leaves, grass, and boulders abound, all of them clearly fake. The subject is touching a dog and pointing to something outside the scope of the photo. It takes the eye a while to decipher all of these details.

This is a bold and impactful dick pic, sender, containing a lovely burst of color and plenty of movement. It’s a busy image, but every component has been carefully considered, from the pose and setting through to the lighting and tone. There’s very little I would change. Your dick pic gets an A+.

The creation of Critique My Dick Pic was partly a reaction to the male gaze and how it still dominates the way we look at bodies. Holden explains, “Whether it’s heterosexual or bi or queer men, it’s still a male gaze, by and large. And … since the site launched, I’ve been trying to encourage a female gaze. The site is inclusive. It’s for everybody. It’s for every type of body, in terms of who can submit.” Submitters include plenty of women and trans folks.

4. Most of the dick pics circulating online — whether contemporary selfies or decades-old art photographs — aren’t terribly diverse. With Critique My Dick Pic, Holden realized early on that she was awash in submissions from straight, white, cis men in their 20s, and she needed to call specifically for a broader set of photos.

In noticing this homogeneity, Holden assumed the dick pic takers were self-selecting. But the history of male nude photography in the West has generally involved photographers (typically male, white, and bisexual or gay) selectively photographing certain kinds of bodies (generally young, well-proportioned, and black or white).

One example of a white photographer who often photographed black men is Carl Van Vechten, who was an active photographer in the Harlem Renaissance. His “Male nude” shows a variety of fabric patterns, both worn by the subject and in the photographic backdrop. The abundant shadows leave the penis, like much of the image, a bit mysterious.

Carl Vechten, “Male nude” (TK) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a luxurious dick pic, sender, featuring decadent costuming and props. It’s visually very busy, but the pose is commanding and the shot expertly staged. Well done! Your dick pic gets an A-.

Vechten’s work may have been considered to have shown a racially diverse outlook for the period, but today, people of color have a bit more leeway to take the representation of their bodies into their own hands. While Holden’s project shows that racial anxieties and tropes continue to show up in dick pics, over the years, for instance, she’s received her fair share of submissions from Asian men who tell her that they want to dispel the stereotype that Asian men have small penises.

5. The line between art photography and dick pic may not be that thick. Although, Holden acknowledges, “It feels almost a little bit obnoxious to critique legitimate works of art in the vein of my Tumblr, but I think that’s kind of the joke.”

At the same time, dick pic takers would benefit from treating their photos with a bit more gravitas. Holden muses, “If you think ‘I’m actually trying to create art here,’ as absurd as that might sound in the context of dick pics, you’re probably going to make a much better picture.”

Christine Ro writes about culture and other topics from London. She's relentlessly lowbrow.