JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Palm* Studios (here). Hardcover, 104 pages, with 49 UV coated color reproductions. Includes an essay by Chelsea Hodson. In an edition of 700 copies. Design by Bruce Usher. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: When a Man Loves a Woman, the first photobook by the New York-based photographer Molly Matalon, was just released by Palm* Studios in London. It examines delicate aspects of masculinity and desire, by showing men from a woman’s vantage point. Matalon says that she is “interested in masculinity, and the small box that men are given to perform in.” Her male nudes reveal the vulnerability and gentleness of her subjects, and bring out a different side of typical male representation. The book presents a series of portraits of men (both friends and strangers), which are occasionally interrupted by still lifes of fruits and flowers.
When a Man Loves a Woman has a white cover, and the book immediately feels very delicate and personal, almost like a diary or journal. A tiny tipped-in image appears on the cover – it shows three perfect moldy bananas on a green plate; the title and the artist’s name are handwritten in swoopy cursive and take up the whole back cover. The title echoes the 1960s hit by Percy Sledge, a romantic classic often played at weddings, and smartly inverts the content of the book. Inside, the title pages set a rather slow and calm opening to the book, and all of the photographs are printed with a glossy coating, adding a shiny, intimate glare.
The visual flow starts with a photograph of a vase with yet-to-bloom lilies standing on a blue surface. It is pared down, gentle, formally controlled, and fragile, and this depiction hints at the way Matalon photographs the men in her series. Matalon builds simmering amounts of tension in many of her images. A few spreads into the book, a man sits in the kitchen, holding his knee as he leans back in a chair; there is a glass of juice and a pile of yellow flower petals on the table, the surroundings softening his attitude. In another image, a man poses nude with one leg on a green sofa; he has a neat haircut, his body is covered with tattoos, and he looks right back at us, confident and calm.
Matalon’s portraits are taken both in nature and in the comfort of an apartment, and all are carefully and thoughtfully composed: a blond man lying on a bed covered with a red blanket as the sunlight comes through the window behind him; a man wearing just socks stands casually in a hallway leaning against a railing; and a nude man hangs upside down from a tree. There are also close ups of chests, tattooed bodies, an armpit, and legs. The female gaze changes the usual dynamics of seeing and being seen, the exposed vulnerability in these photographs reflecting a reversal of power and attraction.
Matalon’s portraits are intimate and soft, but these photographs are not necessarily romantic or even seductive. The portraits of men are mixed together with carefully composed images of a messy crumbled cake, a drooping red tulip, a scooped out watermelon, a half-eaten plum, gatherings of arranged flowers, and socks. One of these images captures two tall pears, almost identical, against a blurry background of the garden, the shapes strikingly phallic but also calm. The colors and compositions in Matalon’s series recall the work of Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans, and their gentle mood echoes that of Pixy Liao, whose work shows the complexity and nuances of the relationship with her husband.
The project was, in a way, uncharted territory for Matalon herself. “It was more about seeing and looking at them in the ways I find attractive and desirable.” She says that “at first I set out to make erotic and sexy pictures, but I think what I ended up with is something a bit more nuanced.” “This is interesting to me when considering the scope of women’s sexuality and desire—it’s so much more complicated to describe and define than we think.”
The last image in the book, appearing after an empty spread to emphasize its isolation, depicts a dusty grey sculpture of a man cradling and tenderly kissing a woman on her head, taken from a grave in Italy. He looks strong and protective, while she is soft and vulnerable. It is a momentary return to the representation of a male-dominated world, and the sequence of images that precedes it reminds us that there is plenty of room for alternate desires.
As a photobook, When a Man Loves a Woman is beautifully produced and executed. Matalon’s portraits show that men can be vulnerable, soft, gentle, and tender, and yet this doesn’t in any way undermine their masculinity. In the past few years, there have been a number of strong photobooks by female photographers documenting women, freeing themselves from dominant male gaze. Matalon’s series adds another voice into that complex conversation about gender and representation, challenging the ways we perceive and portray sexuality. Her depiction of masculinity and the male body is attentive and fresh, digging deeper into the politics of looking and the nuances of intimacy.
Collector’s POV: Molly Matalon does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).