Warning: This article contains many full-frontal images of fully nude men.
In 2014, photographer Abigail Ekue’s series “Bare Men” was accepted into a juried exhibition composed of nude photos. Shortly thereafter, however, Ekue was alerted by a curator that her work was to be removed from the show because other contributing artists were worried that viewers could be offended by Ekue’s work, which wasn’t as “soft” as the rest of the featured imagery.
This kind of judgment is exactly what Ekue works to amend through her photographs, which depict the bodies of naked men in a style that’s direct, raw and unapologetic. As the artist said in an earlier interview with The Huffington Post: “I want to remove the stigma of male nudity being taboo and threatening.”
Why do women’s unclothed bodies appear everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the flashing advertisements in Times Square, and yet the sight of a naked male is still cause for alarm? Why can images of nude women be tacitly accepted as neutral, while images of men are labeled as exclusively queer? Why have conversations surrounding body positivity and self-love eluded men? These are some of the questions Ekue hopes to explore, and render irrelevant, through her project.
Ekue has been documenting the male body since 2012, having currently photographed well over 500 subjects. She recruits willing models through her website, and happily accepts male-identifying individuals young and old, cis and trans, tattooed or pierced, of all races and body types.
While Euke won’t turn down a subject with chiseled abs, she’s most drawn to models whose bodies are not often depicted unclothed, in art or, really, anywhere. That means big bodies, hairy bodies, wrinkled bodies, bodies that haven’t been toned, waxed or airbrushed. “I wanted something different from the studio-based bodyscapes or flexing physique male nudes,” she said. “No need to ‘get in shape’ or ‘tone up’ for the shoot.”
The most iconic photographer of naked men is Robert Mapplethorpe, whose highly stylized black-and-white close-ups of bodies and parts pulse with queer eroticism. While some of Ekue’s photos are sexual ― indeed, some men even masturbate during the sessions ― sexuality is not the artist’s intention. Instead, she works to evoke beauty, acceptance and normalization, the kind that arises when images are no longer forbidden and become commonplace.
Most often, Ekue opts to shoot models in their homes, being the spaces they’re most comfortable. Some recline on the couch or mill around in the shower, existing comfortably while just happening to be unclothed. Others achieve and maintain erections, a process Ekue was interested in capturing on camera.
Even when Ekue’s photos are sexual, they stick to her proscribed formula of conjuring rawness, honesty and vulnerability, subverting the notion that solo sex for men lacks the nuance it does for women. “It levels the playing field to witness that men aren’t above setting a scene or drawing out the experience,” Ekue said in a statement. “Then there’s the added layer of knowing they’re being photographed that either thrills or terrifies some of them.”
Recently, pop culture and mainstream media have made an effort to address issues of body image, sex positivity and diverse representation, though primarily these efforts have been geared toward women. Ekue hopes to provide men the same services of visibility and complexity, showing they too can be sensitive, sexy and insecure in their own skin ― and so much more.
“I hope the images of the ‘Bare Men’ series can illustrate to viewers that naked men aren’t ugly or undesirable,” Euke said. “I want to show that, like women, some men have body-image issues due to internalized societal ideals, but also that some men are confident show-offs. A man being naked isn’t always sexual. I want to remove the stigma of male nudity being taboo and threatening.”
“Bare Men” is on view from June 1 through July 31, 2017, at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas.