“I'm interested in masculinity, and the small box that men are given to perform in,” says Matalon, whose first photobook explores the gentler side of masculinity and desire
The experience of looking through Molly Matalon’s new photobook is like revisiting memories of relationships you never had. You lock eyes with a naked stranger, who poses sensually on a velvet sofa in an unfamiliar apartment somewhere in New York City. In any other situation, the scene could seem probing, or voyeuristic, but the moments and expressions that Matalon captures in her subjects are so intimate and vulnerable that, without even thinking, you see a whole relationship flash before your eyes.
When a Man Loves a Woman is Matalon’s first photobook. “[The title is] like one of those things that feels like an inside joke with no one,” says the New York-based photographer, whose book is a collection of staged portraits of men — a mixture of friends, lovers, and acquaintances — arranged in between meditative still-lifes of drooping flowers and softening fruit. The book is an exploration of masculinity, but, rather than undermining it, the gentleness with which Matalon photographs her subjects allows for a new way of thinking about sexuality and desire.
The idea of using photography to “build a world that isn’t real” is central to Matalon’s project. The images came about during a time when she was “struggling with thinking about relationships, dating and my own desire,” and, almost unconsciously, they became an exploration of something the photographer has always been fascinated by: “Masculinity and the small box that men are given to perform in.”
Matalon’s life has not been short of male presence: she has a brother, is close to her father, and spent her teens in a male-orientated punk scene. But, until now, she had never had a boyfriend, or “figured out how to deal with intimacy”. “I feel that it was something I was maybe avoiding, unconsciously,” she admits. “In my head, I was gonna make these sexy, erotic pictures of men, but then I got back these soft, sensual pictures. And I thought, ‘maybe this is what I find sexy’.”
The book was planned to launch at the LA Art Book Fair in April, which was unfortunately cancelled due to the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). Matalon, one of British Journal of Photography’s Ones to Watch in 2019, speaks over the phone from her apartment in New York City, where she is in lock-down with her boyfriend. “He’s actually my first boyfriend. We met after the book wrapped up, which is funny because the book is about desire, romance and fantasy. I feel like maybe I manifested something,” she laughs.
What is so compelling about Matalon’s photography is her ability to make us realise that perhaps this “new world” she portrays is one we knew of all along. In this world, masculinity is not performed by flexed biceps and oiled abs, or expressions of dominance and power, instead, it is communicated through soft tufts of chest hair, a daydream caught off-guard, or a pair of socks hanging out to dry. It is intentionally ambiguous and vulnerable because that is the very nature of romance and desire.