Molly Matalon on Masculinity, Female Desire, and Her New Book

A discussion with the photographer on “When a Man Loves a Woman,” why it differs from her past works, and how a musician’s album is like a photo book.

Looking At Chapman’s Adam’s Apple In Italy, 2019. Photograph from Molly Matalon’s new book, When A Man Loves a Woman (2020).

Considering they’re my only connections to the world outside my apartment, (which I haven’t left in weeks,) my cell phone and laptop have become the center of my life during this quarantine. So it’s become more important than ever to take breaks from staring at screens and lend my attention to something more tangible, like photo books. Jack Davison’s Photographs is among my favorites, but I’m eagerly awaiting Molly Matalon’s latest, When A Man Loves a Woman, which was released on April 1, and will be arriving in my mailbox soon. I had the chance to call Molly and discuss her latest book, in what’s been an exciting moment in her career.

When did you start shooting this body of work, and did you go into it knowing it would be a book?

There isn’t really a concrete start and finish to my process—that tends to be a very editorialized way of thinking about art-making. For this body of work, it doesn’t really apply. Basically, this all started when I made Olive Juice with my friend Damien [Maloney], a book that was published in 2016. That book was about our friendship and very much about the male and female experience at the same time, and sort of blurring gender. That was the first time I’ve photographed a man who was my peer. Of course, I photographed my dad and grandparents, but this was the first time I photographed someone who I was at one point romantically interested in and I was like “Oh, there’s something happening in my brain that’s making me really like doing this.” I felt like in the past when I was photographing women I started asking myself “Why am I even doing this? Why am I photographing other girls? That’s not true to my experience. I never grew up with girls. I didn’t really have girlfriends.” Some of the people in the book are people I met on Tinder, but the range of men is so varied that it’s more about an attraction to men or a romantic look at man than it is about any one person.

Damien By The Pool, At Zak’s Parents Home In Los Angeles, 2015. Photograph by Molly Matalon.

None of your subjects are really shown in a way that honors the classic hyper-masculine characterization of man—which is a really large, muscular guy, I guess, who’s going to “protect” all of us somehow. Your men look vulnerable and soft. I have a lot of questions about this, but the first one I wrote down is, how does this push the viewer’s perception of man?

It’s funny, everything you just said, because that feels like the true undercurrent of the work, versus a kind of female power over men. I’m really interested in why, when I set out to make a picture, I feel like, “I’m gonna make this sexy picture of Jamie,” and then what actually happens is the pictures we are left with are actually really tender. It’s an expectation versus reality thing. Men can be these soft, sensitive, and flawed things that you see in the book.

The internet went through this phase in the early 2010s, maybe even up until now, when it really championed feminism in photography in the form of female photographers photographing other girls. In doing this, girls were freeing themselves from the male gaze. I’m realizing that your body of work is just as feminist as all the others. It’s still speaking to the female experience. By showing us what men actually are, you’re carving out this space to understand what women can be.

Yeah, definitely. My women friends, or like, women in my life, when they’ve looked at this project, so much of it is about accepting that you have desire as a woman, period. That is a radical idea. So when other women friends, or myself, or whoever, are looking at the work, some people have been like, “Oh my god, that picture reminds me of someone I’ve slept with, or that one reminds me of my boyfriend,” and I can sort of feel myself blushing. A lot of the work is really about this exploration or giving yourself, as a woman, permission. I feel like the female experience is in accepting that there is an attraction in the world that women have. And then it’s really interesting if we look at the history of art, which has made it incredibly clear that men have desire.

Harold’s Nose, Earring, Nipples, And Two Cups In London, 2019. Photograph by Molly Matalon.

Totally. The greatest takeaway from art history, sadly, is: men have this great desire for women!

Right, and I think where the female experience comes in, is sort of the opposite of that. For women, it’s about discovering this desire that hasn’t yet been made so clear.

Totally, and I think a big part about creating a more equal world for all of us, but especially women, is creating better men. We have to talk about how masculinity robs men of who they actually are or can be, though, before we can raise better guys in the future and have a better world—which is what your project is helping to do, I think.

I mean, it’s absolutely that. When you tell someone, like a guy, what they can and can’t do, that’s so isolating and creates a sort of violence. I think it’s okay to be like, “Hey, I’m interested in men and masculinity, and I’m curious about looking at them.”

Do you feel like you’ll continue adding to this body of work then, as long as you go on and keep creating your work as you naturally do?

Yeah, definitely. Lola, who published this book, reached out maybe two years ago, and said “I noticed you’re working on this thing. I know you might not be ready, but I wanna be the person to publish it,” and I was like, “Okay, I’m not ready for this to be a book yet. I feel self-conscious.” Eventually the publisher said, “Listen, you’re probably just gonna continue to make this kind of work your whole life. Let’s just put a bookend on it. Moving forward after that, even if you’re interested in the same ideas, that will be a different book.”

Red Grapes Sharing Two Bowls At Nich’s Apartment In Los Angeles, 2018. Photograph by Molly Matalon.

I’ve always looked at a photographer’s portfolio the same way I’d look at a musician’s discography. Sometimes a musician will dedicate an entire album to a singular concept that relates back to itself—like when Lady Gaga created The Fame, or Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. But a lot of other musicians, most musicians I’d argue, are making work that is quite literally a recording of a period of time in their life. As a photographer, I’m curious to know if you’d agree, that there’s a certain pressure to just finally put your book out, the same way you’d release an album?

Oh, my god, yeah. It’s a capitalism thing: “You’ve been working. Do you wanna have work in the world? You should put out a book.” Some people are like FKA Twigs, or Lady Gaga; I’d argue most of the artists we look up to in the canon, though, are people who have ideas that drive them in the world. For example, David Hockney, he’s interested in a certain kind of landscape his entire life.

For sure, or keeping with the musical metaphor, Lana Del Rey has basically continued to write songs about love, in more or less the same style, her entire career. Whether or not we like those songs is almost beside the point. She’s someone who’s working in a similar way to you, where you’re continuing to just contribute to this larger body of work which surrounds your overall artistic identity.

Totally. It’s interesting because I recently started teaching the introduction to theory class at the School of Visual Arts, and a big part of my curriculum is just teaching the students to find what is interesting to them, what’s unique to them, and to just do it—but don’t randomly pick out of a bag. For me, at least, I’m interested in male sexuality, and I’m interested in sexuality, period.

Man And Woman Statue On A Grave In Italy, 2019. Photograph by Molly Matalon.

When I was looking at the PDF of the book that you sent me, I was flipping through it like I would with a book. I came across this really interesting image near the end. It’s this photograph of a sculpture, a really robust man holding this woman. It’s a sensual sculpture, and it speaks to this characterization of man we spoke about before. Most importantly, it also includes this caricature of the woman in response to the man. He’s seen as strong and protective, she’s shown as soft and vulnerable. Did you include this to hint to the viewer that you’re showing us how this depiction of man and women is a performance, and it’s not quite accurate, in contrast with all your pictures?

Yeah, you’re catching what I’m throwing. That picture is actually at the very end of the book. There’s a blank page in between. So it kind of is a stand-alone piece in the book. That sculpture is actually on a grave of a man and a woman. I like to say that it found me—I was in Italy with a group of my friends, and we went to the coast for a few days, and we went to this cemetery, actually, to look for the statues that are on the Joy Division album cover. The original photographs were taken at the cemetery. So then we’re leaving, and because the cemetery is so old, everything is covered in dust and kind of wet. I saw the statue and I thought, “Oh, my gosh,” I couldn’t believe it existed. I took one frame of it and at the end of the day it’s this representation of a very epic romance.

It’s a piece of art that reminds us what art has always told us about men and women—and it’s an archaic sculpture, which says a lot. It’s actually really significant that it’s a sculpture, right?

Yes. It’s a structure that’s manmade. So it and what it’s saying are not part of a reality.

It’s also great because the photograph is this really gentle handout to the viewer, another clue at the end of the book as to what this work is actually about. I appreciate that, because the fine art world always relies on ambiguity to make a statement.

Right, the art world feeds on intellectual arrogance.

Learn more about Molly’s book here.

My Two Toes In Hara’s Mouth, And One Of My Stray Hairs, In My Bed In Oakland, 2015. Photograph by Molly Matalon.

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