Monika Macdonald, Hulls

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by André Frère Éditions (here). Hardcover, 72 pages, with 34 color reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. Art direction and design by Gregor Ulf Nilson. Design assistance by Jussi Johansson. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Monika Macdonald is a Swedish photographer whose work explores intimacy and vulnerability. She says that “My images are memories. To access a sense of loneliness and vulnerability. To be admitted beyond reason, far from what is called reality.” Macdonald’s earlier photobook In Absence is an autobiographical work, looking at women who decided to live alone in their search for belonging. Her new body of work continues this search in a different way – the series paints an intimate and raw portrait of older men (most of them in their 50s), who see themselves in a vulnerable period of their life. Macdonald says that with this project she wants to “explore men as fragile and solitary and very alone with their own bodies, and so I wanted them to use their body to express something that they might not ordinarily be.” She notes that Swedish society is rather self-controlled in terms of expressing feelings and emotions, and so, she also sees this project is also a self-portrait, a desire to break this control. When we allow ourselves to lose control, we show more of ourselves to the people around us. 

Hulls has a cloth bound warm grey cover with a tipped in image depicting a man lying on his chest on a table, his legs bent back and upward in silver tights, and the photograph immediately tells us that these won’t be typical portraits of aging men. The title and the artist’s name are printed in white font on the spine, and the title appears again on the back cover, in silver with each letter in a different font. The book opens to silver endpapers and visible binding stitches, and the first image we see is a close up of a dark butterfly (or moth) on a wooden surface, printed on metallic paper, offering a sense of fragility. The visual narrative of Hulls doesn’t follow a clear storyline, so the sequencing and placement of the images sets the rhythm of the flow. The photobook offers no captions, no text, no page numbers, nor any other explanations; Macdonald leaves it to the viewer to engage with the images.

Prior to each photo session, Macdonald shared with her subjects sketches of what she wanted them to do. Most of the photographs were taken inside, usually in Macdonald’s own apartment – she wanted to create an intimate and trusting environment, encouraging them to lose their self-limitations. Macdonald’s photographs of men’s bodies are far from what is considered beautiful. These middle-aged men don’t have perfect bodies – quite the opposite, their aging bodies have bellies, dry skin, deep wrinkles, hairy backs, and they wear socks, unsexy underwear, and are depicted in unflattering and often awkward postures. At first glance, some of them even look slightly insane, if not disturbed, but ultimately this is an effect of letting oneself go, and the fact that we rarely see people depicted in such a manner. Describing her work, Macdonald says that “Hulls is a photographic essay about my meeting with the man in a space without limitation. An intimate room for losing self-control. I am trying to relate and investigate his search for escapism, trust, to belong, or his resistance. I want to play with romance, self-confidence or lack of it, the vulnerable piece of body.”

Macdonald constantly pushes conventional limits in her relationship with her subjects. One of the first spreads pairs a horizontal photo of a man’s arching torso on white sheets, with a vertical close up of mouths with aggressively exposed teeth. Another photograph captures a nude man standing on one leg like an egret, the slightly downward tilting angle adding more distortion to our perception. A third image is a close up of a man’s chin dipped into a glass, like a dog lapping milk. These and other portraits are both enigmatic and offbeat: a man sliding awkwardly off the bed, then an arms up nude man reclining on (or falling out of) a windowsill, and another man in black boxers on his knees leaning on a chair as he looks outside a window. Macdonald often skews the frame, adding movement and distortion, and one of the instantly distinguishing features of her work is its use of darker color, shadowy light, and tactile surfaces, which makes the photographs look like paintings.

The postures and body language of Macdonald’s subjects echo the uncomfortable and playful self-portraits of Boris Mikhailov, and the photographs of Elemér, a tall awkward man, by Marton Perlaki. The exposed vulnerability of these men also brings to mind the recent work of Molly Matalon, and while her portraits are very different in style and approach, they similarly challenge the traditional ways of representing masculinity. 

As Macdonald exposes flesh, she uncovers the vulnerability of both body and mind. The photobook begins with an image of a butterfly, later adds a shot of bees, and ends with a close up photo of a dragonfly, and then a grasshopper printed on a metallic paper. These photographs of insects create peculiar juxtapositions with the raw portraits of the men, but also serve as a metaphor for their natural gentleness and fragility. In the end, Macdonald’s contemplative and intimate series is unexpected depiction of manhood, and continues a growing conversation in contemporary photography about alternate modes of seeing bodies, aging, and masculinity.

Collector’s POV: Monika Macdonald is represented by Galerie VU (here) and Agence VU in Paris (here). Her work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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