Masculinity is full of contradictions. Just take the word itself: In German, “masculinity” is feminine! Images of masculinity can be interpreted differently and change as a result – today, more quickly than ever. Like the images in the Gropius Bau’s current photographic exhibition, Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, which has over 300 works by 50 international artists. Here, members of the Young Gropius Bau (ages in parentheses) reflect on selected works.

Peter Hujar, David Britzenhofe Applying Makeup (II), 1982

Peter Hujar, David Britzenhofe Applying Makeup (II), 1982

© 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC

Soft Future

Janneke Brahms (17) on Sam Contis (39), “Eggs”, 2015

The first thing I noticed in the photograph is exciting, sensitive and new. Eggs (2015), from the Deep Springs series, was taken by the American artist Sam Contis at Deep Springs College in the western USA. This photo depicts a grimy, rough, tanned male hand carefully holding a pair of delicate, smooth, ivory-coloured eggs. Contis gives a new – inverted – sense of peaceful harmony to the Wild West cowboy, who’s traditionally shown as harsh, brutal and fiercely independent. She revises an old-fashioned male image of severity and untouchability to a masculinity full of intimacy, tenderness, sensuality, openness and freedom. That’s why I find that Contis’ Deep Springs series creates a model for the future, one with room for many different versions of masculinity undefined by gender stereotypes. It gives me a feeling of “becoming” – in which nothing is fixed and everything is malleable.

Sam Contis, Eggs, 2015

Sam Contis, Eggs, 2015. From the series Deep Springs, 2017

© Sam Contis, Courtesy: the artist and Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery, New York

Sleeping Peace

Mira Raue (16) on Adi Nes (55), “Untitled”, 1999

Sleeping faces have something innocent, pure and intimate to them. Some people believe our facial expressions reveal what we’re dreaming. We don’t know how we look with our eyes closed. We definitely don’t see “masculinity” in sleeping faces. I really enjoy looking at this photo – because it’s nice to look at. It links being a young soldier with the peace of sleep. Soldiers embody belligerence, self-sacrifice, protection, patriotism – classical masculine attributes that contrast with the very human act of sleeping. The photographer Adi Nes manages to capture both. To me it feels as if the artist is cradling the opposites in the palm of his hand and gently lifting them into the air. This makes them seem light – as if they’re floating, almost weightless – and visible for the first time.

Adi Nes, Untitled, from the series “Soldiers”, 1999

Adi Nes, Untitled, from the series “Soldiers”, 1999

Courtesy: Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

Codes are not just codes

Mert Kazar (20) on Hal Fischer (70), “Handkerchiefs”, 1977

Hal Fischer’s photograph shows two men from the rear, or more precisely, from the lower back to the knees. The black and white photograph focuses on the two handkerchiefs. Handwritten text on the image explains what it’s all about: These handkerchiefs are not just handkerchiefs but rather signifiers for other men. The colour of the handkerchief and where it’s worn are key. One of my first thoughts was that these days codes are often used in programmes: Signs, symbols and numbers give information a task and make systems work. That’s a very IT-oriented way of looking at things. With smartphones, tablets and the like such a big part of our lives, I understood why I sensed that there had to be more to it. After a few minutes, childhood memories came back to me. Codes are not just codes. They’re part of interpersonal behaviour. The first thing that came to mind was “insiders”. When I think of codes, I think of something inaccessible – secrets expressed through words, writing, gestures and facial expressions. You may not think about it right away but there are codes in friendships, school classes and everyday life. I’m not going out on a limb when I say that there’s a reason to call people insiders and that not everyone has to be in on their secrets. Insiders have always been part of my life and they show just some of the codes that enhance many peoples’ lives – what are they thinking? On one hand, it’s a shame that in 1977, when the photo was taken, you had to encrypt your sexuality. But that also made you more creative, like using different coloured handkerchiefs. Yet the photographer chose to make a black and white image – as a way of saying that these codes shouldn’t be needed?

Hal Fischer, Handkerchiefs, 1977

Hal Fischer, Handkerchiefs, 1977

Courtesy: the artist and Project Native Informant London

Appearance attracts, character holds tight

Lena Preuß (17) on Hans Eijkelboom (73), “The Ideal Man”, 1978

Many people who are into men have an idea of their ideal man early on. This can change over time and also be very general, but from my experience and observation, individual characteristics do emerge. Where do they come from, and is appearance really more important than character? I think we’re very influenced by the media, stars and probably also by our parents. I often hear things like “Appearance attracts and character holds tight” and notice that someone’s friend looks just like their father. In 1978, the artist Hans Eijkelboom asked 100 women to describe their ideal man in terms of appearance and clothing. Then, in The Ideal Man, he recorded the ten most varied answers. What’s exciting is that Hans Eijkelboom performed and photographed them himself. These works glued me to the spot. There’s something funky and emotional about them. But they also got me thinking: As a cis-woman, I wonder how pressured men feel to please their counterparts. The opposite is exactly the same: We women don’t want to be reduced to our looks – hardly anyone does. But there is social pressure. For example, many women my age think their partner has to be taller. This pressure is passed on to men – they want to be big, strong and brave. But do we really need that?

Hans Eijkelboom, The Ideal Man, 1978

Hans Eijkelboom, The Ideal Man, 1978, exhibition view Gropius Bau 2020

© Hans Eijkelboom, photo: Luis Kürschner

Threatening victory pose

Robert Schulte (18) on Mikhael Subotzky (40), “Tactical Unit, Johannesburg”, 2007

I discovered this image by the South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky in the Masculinities exhibition in the Gropius Bau. I liked it right away. I looked at it a long time and kept finding new areas that captured my imagination. I think it gives a very special impression – through the colours, the composition and new aspects that keep cropping up. A policeman (of the Tactical Unit of the Johannesburg) is confidently raising his middle finger in the air and holding his gun in the other hand. Almost like a victor. But who’s he addressing? He’s the man who’s authorised to protect the citizens – and here he’s showing that to the world. His body language radiates pride and self-confidence. His dark uniform and stature look threatening and provocative.

Mikhael Subotzky, Tactical Unit, Johannesburg, 2007

Mikhael Subotzky, Tactical Unit, Johannesburg, 2007

© Mikhael Subotzky and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2020


Paul Maragnoli (20) on Catherine Opie (59), “Stephen”, 2009

The world over, sport is associated with emotion, passion and physicality, and in the same breath, masculinity. It’s not for nothing that the world watches the World Cup every four years and the Superbowl in the USA every year. It’s a realm that’s thoroughly dominated by men, raising the question: Is sport masculinity or does it provide a rigid image of masculinity that many men model themselves on? Sport generally involves competition, whether wrestling for victory or comparing yourself with others to see who’s stronger or faster. You really and truly want to become Superman – strong, glorious, heroic and impressive. That’s precisely why in Catherine Opie’s 2009 photograph, Stephen is wearing a Superman T-shirt. Superman is simultaneously a metaphor and an aim. Many young athletes dream of that, and Stephen probably does, too. He looks like a soldier having his picture taken before his last stand. He poses heroically on the football pitch with broad shoulders and flexed muscles, holding his helmet. He resembles a rock in the surf, invulnerable, indestructible. But he can be hurt, not only physically as the plaster on his shin suggests, but also mentally. His stance seems heroic, but also a bit fearful of possible defeat. That’s what gets me: With its flawless, perfect supermen, sports set an almost unattainable goal. But aren’t blemishes and defects what make you a person – a man?

Catherine Opie, Stephen, 2009

Catherine Opie, Stephen, 2009

© Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Apparent ease

Emilia Stroschein (18) on Herb Ritts (1952–2002, who’d be 68 today), “Fred with Tires, Hollywood”, 1984

What do we mean by “masculinity”? Sadly, statements like “Men don’t cry!” and “Boys have to become big, strong and muscular to be ‘real’ men!” still influence the way many children are brought up. They seem to be pushed to submit to the binary system. A person’s biological sex seems to direct them to assume the characteristics attributed to their respective – socially constructed – gender. What does that mean for men today? Toughness, muscles, dominance, strength, self-confidence, few feelings and no weaknesses, cars and mechanics. In the 1980s, Herb Ritts’ photograph Fred with Tires, Hollywood (1984) was considered to represent masculinity. It was staged for an Italian designer’s photo shoot. I think it’s a very constructed image of masculinity. In an auto body shop, a muscular man with tousled hair and bare torso lifts two huge car tyres – that had to be heavy – with apparent ease: It’s hard to find a much more clichéd image of masculinity! But here, the obvious staging of masculinity is key: Stylists deliberately tousled the model’s hair and oiled his body to make it look bathed in “manly” sweat, while the lighting accentuates his muscles – in a stereotypically “male” body repair shop. The extreme staging of 100% “masculinity” illustrates how it’s codified in social roles. To me, it shows how absurd the image of men’s social role is. Of course, you’re allowed to conform to the “typical male” image, but that’s just one of many ways to be masculine – and certainly not the only right one.

Herb Ritts, Fred with Tires, Hollywood, 1984

Herb Ritts, Fred with Tires, Hollywood, 1984

© Herb Ritts Foundation, Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London, photo: Luis Kürschner

Strong tears

Janneke Brahms (17) on Bas Jan Ader (1942–75, who’d be 79 today), “I’m Too Sad to Tell You”, 1971

How much humanity is revealed when speech fails? I think that’s exactly what the artist Bas Jan Ader tried to show with his video installation I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1971). The installation shows the artist standing before the camera, weeping inconsolably. Many people see crying as a sign of weakness, but I think it’s a strength, a deeply felt passion, inner feelings or simply sincere emotion. It takes a lot of self-confidence to be true to your feelings and especially, to show them in public. It conveys trust in family, friends, acquaintances and strangers – the whole world. That rare kind of strength really touches me. The installation not only revises an old-fashioned image of men as strong, independent and inviolable, but it also shows unusual character traits in a world dominated by impersonality, speed, modernisation and digitalisation.

Bas Jan Ader, I’m Too Sad to Tell You, 1971

Bas Jan Ader, I’m Too Sad to Tell You, 1971, exhibition view Gropius Bau 2020

© The Estate of Bas Jan Ader / Mary Sue Ader Andersen, 2019 / The Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Courtesy of Meliksetian | Briggs, Los Angeles, Foto: Luca Girardini