Photo Books

Men in Decline, British Youth Culture, and a Slice of the American Upper Crust 

BY Vince Aletti, November 1, 2023

©Carolyn Drake, Reflection in Pond, after Cahun (John D), 2023, from Men Untitled (TBW Books)

Carolyn Drake’s excellent last book, Knit Club (TBW, 2020), revolved around a small-town community of women seen, more often than not, like characters in a hastily improvised avant-garde play. Her new book, Untitled Men (TBW), takes a similar tack with the opposite sex, with considerably more fraught results. (The series is also on view at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation through January 14, 2024, and is reviewed in this issue.) Drake’s text for the project is in a little, easily overlooked pamphlet tucked under the book’s end flap, where she writes, “Despite having existed among them for half a century, I cannot claim to be comfortable around male bodies. The truth is, the male body is not something I’ve ever been encouraged to scrutinize the way we do women’s bodies. It’s as though the act of looking at men is inherently dangerous.” Typically, she doesn’t avoid that danger, but she rarely confronts it head-on. Drake’s subjects, both friends and willing strangers, are ordinary men with ordinary bodies: lumpy, lined, hairy, aging. “I am more interested in viewing men in decline than admiring male prowess,” Drake notes. Prowess isn’t entirely absent (see her diptych of a naked man raising an enormous log – an erectile function joke titled “after Muybridge.”) But many of the most arresting photographs get around that issue by zeroing in on patches of flesh – veins, wrinkles, and fine hairs. These intimate landscapes are artful footnotes to more theatrical, often playful figurative work that teases male self-consciousness. Her handsome odalisque (“after Bellocq”) is uncommonly straightforward. More often, Drake gives men props: a mirror to introduce a third leg, a window screen to kick through, a dart board that becomes a halo. One guy disappears behind a big sheet of cardboard, displaying only his penis, sticking through a peephole. As with Knit Club, the contents of Untitled Men include both bodies and objects – some suggestive (rifles, swords, a snake), others seemingly random (a mannequin bust, a piano in flames, ruined film strips). If it doesn’t really cohere, that’s probably because it’s not a polemic, it’s a hallucination – free-associated, open-ended, wacky, sexy, and as fascinating as a coiled snake.

Alasdair McLellan, from Home and Away (M/M Paris)
Alasdair McLellan, from Home and Away (M/M, Paris)

If you’ve paid any attention at all to the British and European fashion and alt-culture press over the past few decades, you’ve seen the work of Alasdair McLellan. Like David Sims and Corinne Day, McLellan has focused, broadly, on English youth culture. In his case, it’s skewed toward the North, towards red-brick suburbs, strip malls, and the remnants of industry. It’s also casually queer; boys kiss in McLellan’s fashion stories, and if they’re wearing concert t-shirts, that’s probably all they have on. In this brave new world, when they’re not sporting major labels, the girls are topless, the guys are bottomless, roses bloom, and the sky is blue. You can catch up with all this in McLellan’s self-published Home and Away, a hefty, two-volume set co-published and designed by M/M (Paris). With nearly 500 pages of uncaptioned, uncredited, and many previously unpublished pictures in juicy color and cool black and white, there’s a lot of raw material to absorb here, but the mood is buoyant. It’s a pleasure cruise, with cameo appearances by David Hockney, Vivienne Westwood, and the Pet Shop Boys. Everyone else looks barely old enough to order a drink. Jo-Ann Furniss, former editor-in-chief of Arena Homme +, contributes an essay and an interview with McLellan and notes that even if many of the photographer’s subjects have gotten older and more famous since he first hung out with them, “no matter what their age or status, something of the subject’s thirteen-year-old self still shines through; there is something untouched and open about them and there is always springtime light.” In the Q&A, McLellan says he grew up with the work of Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts, but the influence that’s most apparent here is Jack Pierson, whose ongoing Tomorrow’s Man series makes similar use of record sleeves, club flyers, buttons, and stickers. Both Pierson and McLellan channel their inner fan boy and temper their sophistication with recovered innocence.

Cover of These Americans, Will Vogt (Schlit)
Will Vogt, from These Americans (Schlit)

There’s nothing innocent about These Americans (Schlit), Will Vogt’s fat little book of color photographs of his social circle, made over three decades starting in 1969. Absent captions, the pictures invite us to make assumptions and jump to conclusions about people in a class usually called upper. In Vogt’s snapshots of parties, dinners, family vacations, and deer hunts, most of his subjects treat him as a fly on the wall and go about being blasé and behaving badly. The results look like they could be William Eggleston’s or Tina Barney’s outtakes: reeling drunks, rude groping, a group of naked, middle-aged men and women with bags on their heads. Jay McInerney, who says he bonded with Vogt over a shared enthusiasm for F. Scott Fitzgerald, writes the introduction here. He has his own take on wealth and class and an insider’s knowledge of the vices that defined the period Vogt was documenting. He suggests that cocaine, no longer underground in the eighties, fueled many of the chaotic scenes Vogt records here. But some of his most biting pictures aren’t in the least orgiastic. They’re simply studies in unexamined, self-satisfied privilege. Vogt, McInerney writes, “knows what they’re thinking and knows that it may not be pretty…. But he’ll take them as they are. They’re his people.” Which only makes his photographs more alarming – and hard to shake.