A reader writes:
The recent discussions on The Dish on Gamergate, Dr. Matt Taylor’s shirt, and the the vaguely generalized anxiety over the decline of male culture, has been exhilarating, exasperating, and maddening! I can honestly say it’s the single issue where I feel a viscerally negative reaction to parts of your stated opinion. But, as a bright blue dot in the midst of the deep red state of Texas, I’ve long ago had to learn to look past a few points of disagreement for the sake of a friendship. And we are still friends, aren’t we? I hope so.
This debate, along with your long-standing interest in the beard as a quintessential symbol of masculinity and your commitment to highlighting contemporary portrait photography, has actually had a significant impact on my work as a visual artist. I’m a photographer who works using the technologically obsolete, hand-made process known as Wet Collodion, or Tintype, first invented in 1851. This is the process that was used by the British photographer Roger Fenton, whose work during the Crimean War was likely influential in the popularization of the long beard for British men in the mid-19th century, as you mention in this post.
My colleague Bryan Wing and I are the team Project Barbatype.
We photograph the men (and women) who compete in Beard and Moustache competitions, mostly in our Texas region, with plans to attend the World Championships in Austria next year. There is actually an international governing body for this, the World Beard and Moustache Association.
These competitions are usually held in bars and are often fundraisers for various charities, and are, as you may imagine, raucous affairs fueled by much drinking of beer and shouting of obscenities. They are a total blast! Coming from the very staid and stuffy art world (which likes to pretend it’s far more subversive than it actually is), it’s refreshing to make work in an environment where crowds gather to greet an image as it magically emerges in the chemical bath with high-fives and cheers of “THAT’S TOTALLY BADASS!!”
The whole phenomenon of the Beard Competition is, as you say and as I hope our Tintype project seeks to emphasize, “a little cultural balancing of the high-tech 21st Century by the mores of the low-tech 19th.” Many of the competitors dress the part for their turn on the stage, sometimes in very impressive hand-tailored period clothes, others in ironically inspired blue-collar work outfits. All of them take great pride in the care, maintenance, and presentation of their facial hair. One of our guiding principles of the project is to produce photographs that reflect that level of handiwork and committed craft.
I have heard criticism from some Art-world colleagues who think our Project, and the whole phenomenon of the contemporary Beardsmen, is simple and frivolous fluff, best dismissed as a backlash against feminism. But as I see it, there is a very supple and subversive message at work here about the nature of post-feminist masculinity, both hetero- and homo-. By taking a traditional and easily recognizable symbol of manliness and exaggerating it to the point of absurdity, these folks are simultaneously satirizing and celebrating the arbitrariness of all markers of gender identity. “We men are creatures of pompous posturing,” they seem to say. “It’s stupid and we know it. But what the fuck, it’s fun! Look at me! Look at my beard!!” What could be more male than that?
The competitions have all the hallmarks of an eye-roll-inducing “boys will be boys” permissiveness, but divorced from any malicious intent. Which is not to say that there are no rude comments or drunken exaltations flying around the bar – far from it. These are guys out drinking after all, and I certainly am not going to start spouting off about “post-feminist masculinity” while at one of the events, for fear of being (appropriately as I see it) run out as a killjoy.
But these competitions are essentially men in drag, as MEN – MANLY MASCULINE HAIRY MEN’S MEN. As an artsy-fartsy academe who has always felt queasy with unrepentant expressions of male vigor, this is a flavor of masculine identity that I can celebrate without guilt. And I have to admit, that feels nice.
I have attached a few examples of the tintypes from Project Barbatype to this email, but there are more in the Facebook group, and at my personal website. We have signed model releases for each of them, and should you care to publish any, we would certainly welcome the publicity!