I started to appreciate how deeply masculinity was intertwined with my sons’ identities as young men, and, at the same time, how much their generation allowed for more fluidity in gender roles.
The contours of masculinity are moulded by social context. They are determined less by nature than by culture, a panoply of behaviours that encase the individual within a sheath of convention. A protection and a constraint. To slough it off is to discover the freedom of a more authentic self, but it may also be to pass beyond the pale of perceived propriety. That said, the orthodoxies that shape and assess the behaviour of others evolve across time and shift with geography. In a culture where men and women may not touch in public, men hold hands as a gesture of friendship. In the Anglophone west where, outside of competitive sport, public physical contact is more often linked to romantic affection, it is rare to see men hold hands and, when they do, it is usually interpreted as having a sexual signification.
Today, notions of masculinity are caught in the crosscurrents of change. The more aggressive behaviours associated with maleness are increasingly recognised for their intrinsic toxicity. Sexuality is becoming understood as complex, distinct from physiological gender or social demeanour, and potentially unconstrained in focus. Meanwhile, newer generations embrace a more mutable approach to gender, discovering that the characteristics traditionally associated with male or female are, in fact, simply human behaviours open to anyone, neither a straitjacket nor a package deal.
It is the nuance of this fluid understanding of what it means to be male that flows through the work of the artist Allison Plass. Her photographs capture within the everyday intimacy of family life a delicate interplay of action and emotion, of dynamism and languor, as boys become men and men become middle-aged. It is a shimmering image of father and sons, refracted in the maternal gaze. A gaze not simply shared as an insight – a sight from inside – but set within the wider frame of an art history that carries to the present day the mores and idealisations of other times and other places. These gentle images are a reminder that the human condition is not hard like rock, but organic, shaped by environment, cultivated by custom, and ultimately open to be experienced and understood from the inside out. They reflect an authenticity of being rather than the glinting carapace of burnished convention.
When did you begin making photographs?
It was about eight years ago, when my older son was just on the brink of adolescence. I had worked in the art world for several years, writing, researching, and interviewing artists, and I just felt this longing to jump ship and create work too. I was drawn to the evocative language of photography – the sense of mystery an image could contain, and how the very personal could speak to something more.
Making family pictures seemed natural. I felt the intensity of a mother’s gaze kind of leading me on and, as a mother of two sons, I knew I wanted to capture boyhood somehow differently. I had appreciated Sally Mann’s work for many years and was drawn to images by Elinor Carucci and Martine Fougeron. I felt an obvious disparity between conventional representations of boyhood, usually very active and competitive in nature, and the nuance and complexity I witnessed every day in my sons’ emotional lives. I knew I wanted to flesh this out more and understand their world visually.
How did you go about capturing this more complex quality?
The first picture that really resonated for me along those lines was of my then eleven-year-old son in a hot tub with his dad. They were both naked, and their bodies were wrapped in this tender, almost romantic embrace. I remember being excited by the transgressive nature of it. The physical show of affection was seamless and natural in our own family life and, for my German husband, unremarkable in its nudity. But I had the sense that an American viewer might find it unsettling to view a father and son together in this way. A seemingly private moment between a boy and a man, so explicitly shown, pointed to cultural omissions and transgressions that the viewer was being asked to consider. I liked that an image could speak to this broader complication around narrow societal concepts of manhood and the culture of masculinity my sons were stepping into.
Making visible what really was a love story between father and sons felt important to me, a salve to generational wounds of emotionally disconnected boys and men that I had certainly witnessed in my own family of origin. Wounds that seemed to be at the heart of so much that was wrong in the world. In contrast, I was just struck by the tenderness that existed between my husband and son.
I wanted to create a space for more of these moments, with my husband’s presence and my gaze as a kind of container to catch my son’s feelings. So that became my practice for a long time. Our son seemed to love the attention and the theatre of it, and easily fell into these moments with authentic responses of his own.
I am interested you use the word ‘theatre’.
I was recently told by a reviewer that my family’s willing engagement in this ‘mock theatre’ of mine was an endearing aspect of my pictures. I just loved this comment. It made me see how much my husband and sons have let me in all these years. And it addresses how much theatre is involved in creating the conditions that allow these real moments I’m looking for to happen. Then again, are they even real? I love to conceive of the photographic space as a performative one.
[Left] © Allison Plass ‘Golden Hour’ 2021 from the series ‘In the Garden’
[Right] © Allison Plass ‘Masculine Adventures’ 2021 from the series ‘Hold Me Tight’
How has the series developed?
My practice naturally began to shift as the boys grew into their teens. My younger son got involved and I began to make portraits of them all, individually and in pairings. I started to appreciate how deeply masculinity was intertwined with my sons’ identities as young men, and, at the same time, how much their generation allowed for more fluidity in gender roles. It was a real learning curve, appreciating this journey they were on, and respecting their privacy. It was mostly on family vacations, close to nature, that I got to observe their interactions, in settings that allowed for deeper connections to surface. We would go to a lake, or the woods, or the beach and I would feel a kind of sensory aliveness take hold, which often created a mood or a space for these moments to occur.
[Left] © Allison Plass ‘Love in the Afternoon’ 2019 from the series ‘Hold Me Tight’
[Right] © Allison Plass ‘Sick Day’ 2015 from the series ‘Loving Boys’
I think that ‘Love in the Afternoon’ is a good example of that sense of connection.
That photograph was taken in a hotel room after a crushing game of youth soccer. It explores a vulnerable moment, this time with my younger son. I remember seeing his sunburned skin and dirt and my husband encircling him. There was so much softness and desire for connection I was feeling in their exchange, and solace; I wanted to picture that epic love story that exists between father and son.
[Left] © Allison Plass ‘Winter Bather’ 2021 from the series ‘Hold Me Tight’
[Right] © Allison Plass ‘By the Lake’ 2020 from the series ‘Hold Me Tight’
Adolescence can be a turbulent time with a lot of changes, physical and emotional. Mid-life, though less dramatically, can also be one of those transitional stages. How did this affect their interactions and your photographic approach?
I came to understand how much their changing bodies, in adolescence and midlife, communicated so much feeling. I began to observe their gestures, expressions, and physical interactions, looking for openings to the vulnerability or closeness I wanted to capture in a photograph. I looked to the skin and surface of the body, finding a poignant interplay between my sons awakening to their strength and my husband’s awareness that his own was waning. I began to see him as a kind of Odysseus figure, burdened with responsibility, and prone to introspection. My sons, by contrast, seemed to embody early ideas of classical beauty and I could easily see an Achilles or David in the sculptural quality of their forms.
I was deeply interested in their physical interactions. Rough play continues to be a constant in our family, and so natural for brothers, and fathers and sons to engage in at any age. I became fascinated by the tensions of their physical closeness when frozen in a photograph. There was both rivalry and connection, a proving ground, and an intimate exchange. I felt like I was learning a language. Yet these qualities were in so much of European art, and sculpture in particular, often sensually depicted.
This interplay is captured in your photograph entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Rough Play’…
That image explores a moment of stillness between my teenage sons on a warm summer day after some rough play in a hot tub nearby. I liked the capitulation of my younger son, the tears, the arm lock even, the familiar intimacy of brothers. Again, the sculptural quality of their bodies reminds me of those earlier concepts of classical beauty, and their physical interaction reveals the kind of heightened tension of closeness one might not otherwise see in contemporary representations of male relationships.
You have said that, in making this work, you are inspired in part by art history, Greek myth and psychology…
I think at some point there was a convergence between my training as an art historian and being a mother of two adolescent sons. In a sense, many of the ideas I was introduced to around gender, identity and representation in European Art come to life for me in my photographic practice. I am so curious about the way cultural representations of the past that continue to shape the conversation affect the stories we carry about our own lives. A picture like ‘Achilles’ Reflection’ for example, draws on a kind of foundational masculinity in Ancient Greek myth, but it is also a real moment of awakening for my son as he regards himself in the sliding glass door.
Then again, in ‘Heatstroke’, I think of the languorous Odalisques of the nineteenth century and the softness of a boy being attended to by his dad. I love the reversals and juxtapositions that can come out of this.
While the subjects presented in the photographs are the three male members of your family, you are also, in a sense, present: the viewer shares with you the eye of the beholder. What is it like, as a mother and wife, witnessing two sons growing from child to adult?
There is just so much concurrent joy and loss in that witnessing, but mostly joy. And I love this idea that photography is not a nostalgia for the past but a nostalgia for time itself. So, I look at images of these boys from a time already long past and fall in love all over again. I’m grateful to have these pictures.
[Left] © Allison Plass ‘Piercing Through’ 2021 from the series ‘In the Garden’
[Right] © Allison Plass ‘Jan in My Arms’ 2021 from the series ‘In the Garden’
And yes, I have been in a sense present. In recent pictures, I’ve been exploring that more: my own presence in this world of boys and men. Standing just outside their intimate circle, there’s been this felt sense of my own inseparable history, subsumed in my role as mother and partner… and I find myself asking where do they end and I begin? It’s led to a recent shift in my practice. My sons and husband have become more like proxies now, and I’m drawn to myths like the Garden before the Fall where I can upend traditional narratives and reimagine spaces as non-binary where feminine and masculine energies co-exist, the natural world reigns, and a kind of balance is restored. Very utopian!
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making this work?
I’ve learned to follow my unconscious and not overthink things and that the photographs have their own stories to tell. There is a deeper mystery that the medium invites and a clarity too. I have learned to trust that the process will lead me somewhere. I’ve also become more embodied in the world, attuned to my own responses to what I see, and brave enough to follow my impulses. Photography just connects me with existence, the fragility of it, and the beauty of the medium in documenting our experience while we’re here.
Allison Plass was born in Merced, California, in 1966. She has a bachelor’s degree in French studies from Mills College, Oakland, California (1988), and a master’s in the history of art from the University of California, Santa Barbara (1996) where she explored issues of gender and representation in European Art. In 2020, she completed the Advanced Track Program at the International Center of Photography in New York. Her work has been featured in a number of solo, group, and competitive exhibitions in the USA and also in the United Kingdom and Australia. She lives and works in New York.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.