Photographers Molly Matalon and Caroline Tompkins offer their personal perspectives of a subject largely documented by men
Molly Matalon and Caroline Tompkins are reshaping our view of contemporary America through their lenses. Born in Florida and Ohio respectively, since studying together at New York’s School of Visual Art, they have trained their cameras on the frequently neglected corners of their home country, critiquing its grand historical narratives, and getting under its tough skin to find moments of tenderness.
Matalon’s intimate male nudes show solitary subjects in quiet, sunlit corners of the day, flipping the male gaze, and giving vital agency to female desire. Whilst Tomkins’ photographic odysseys through the weird and wonderful landscapes of rural and suburban America offer humorous and sensitive comments on localism and community. The work of both photographers offers a carefully articulated challenge to the established photo history of the United States, adopting a ‘straight’, no-frills approach that recalls and subverts the view established by a majority male-band of photo pioneers during the 20th century.
Ahead of their upcoming show in Milan, Playing for Keeps, presented by indie publishing house Enlarge Your Memories, Matalon and Tompkins, along with the show’s curator, Jamie Allan Shaw, speak about American identity, feminist photography, and running with the dogs.
Can you talk about how the idea for the show came about and who approached who?
Jamie Allan Shaw: I had just moved to Milan and I wanted to do some small shows. My friend Giulia Zorzi runs Micamera in Milan, it’s a really great bookshop and gallery space, and her curational remit is Americana, which is traditionally quite male-centric. So I wanted to do a contemporary update with women, which is where Molly and Caroline came in!
Caroline and Molly, you both respond to the places you grew up in your photographs. Was that something you were both interested in doing at the outset of your practices, or did it happen gradually alongside other points of focus?
Caroline Tompkins: I think that moving from Ohio to a place like New York, or a big city in the US, you are forced to recognise how sort of strange the place you grew up is. Going into art school you’re thinking about what’s important to you in these very intrinsic ways, and going back to where you’re from is quite a natural first step for a lot of people.
Molly Matalon: I think Caroline was really interested in Ohio as a place specifically, and I was more interested in my family, and the second thought was Florida, like: ‘How does Florida affect my family?’ So yeah, I think both of those initial ideas about making work are still sprinkled into our practices today.
There’s a kind of hysteria over America and American identity at the moment, and the photographs both of you take offer a respite from that. I’m keen to know what the view of ‘America’ is like where each of you are situated at the moment.
Caroline Tompkins: I think we’re in a sort of product of reality TV shows, of Facebook, of large technological advances in a short space of time. Alongside being a relatively young country, at the same time, we’re also a very large country, which has to take into account a lot of different types of people, situations, climates, etc.
Molly Matalon: The first thing that comes to mind is how can you make work about ‘America Now’ without it being pictures of red hats… I think there’s something happening in both Caroline and I’s work that thematically is American. We’re both really interested in this promise of ‘something’, the pictures seem optimistic, they have an openness to them. And what both of us are working with is the reality of that, the shortcomings of having an open mind. I think Caroline is a bit more optimistic, and I’m more pessimistic, which is interesting because I think her work is more pessimistic and mine is more optimistic.
“The first thing that comes to mind is how can you make work about ‘America Now’ without it being pictures of red hats… I think there’s something happening in both Caroline and I’s work that thematically is American” – Molly Matalon
Jamie Allan Shaw: I asked both of you to work together because both of you can take a portrait of somebody where you’re also present in the picture, in a way that empowers you more than it empowers the subject, which is really exciting, and an attribute that, to me, updates American photography.
Caroline Tompkins: Yeah, for me there’s this idea of not being like other girls, but also definitely being like other girls…
Molly Matalon: That’s something that has bonded and connected Caroline and I, on a higher level, but also in terms of the semiotics of our pictures. They are ‘straight’ photographs, not in a sexual orientation way, but it’s a sense of like, the thing in front of you really was there – which is traditionally a male way of taking pictures. We’re not using any sort of facade or you know, any sort of visual elements that can pull things more towards the female side of the Venn Diagram of photography, we’re like ‘running with the dogs’ you know? If that makes sense? There’s way more potential of making someone think about something from just looking at it as it is.
That’s something that has historically been aligned with a male approach as well, the alignment of photography with this noble endeavour of getting to the bottom, or to the core of the thing you’re confronting through the lens. It’s all very much linked to power.
Molly Matalon: It’s like, the photographs of the ‘new’ American west; Robert Frank, getting paid to go and show what it was like there, standing in front of things, showing them as ‘fact’, but that is also a very fundamental thought about photography; what’s in front of you may or may not be true, and it’s most likely not true.
Definitely, and in terms of the curational thread that the show follows, I wanted to ask you, Jamie, as a British curator working with American material, what the ‘familiar history’ of America you mentioned in the press text means to you.
Jamie Allan Shaw: I think as young people under 30, our exposure to American photography is all part of a specific postcard vision. But if you dig a little deeper into the country’s history, it’s a lot about fluctuations in industrial production from coast to coast, linked to things which have predominantly been masculine, like the railroads or the advertising industry. So that’s what I mean by a familiar history. But then there are people like Diane Arbus, who have really helped to cause seismic shifts in the way we see America. And this relates to Molly and Caroline because they are both American photographers, but their work is a progression of that subversive history, it’s an update of that same environment.
I’m intrigued to hear about how each of you approaches your subjects and situations when working.
Caroline Tompkins: I think being a few things; a person on the internet, a woman who’s thinking about representation, especially in my role as a photo editor, all of these things, definitely thinking about the implications of being a white person and showing up somewhere and being like, ‘I’m gonna represent you now, I’m gonna choose!’ So the way I find people is different for different kinds of work. For the pictures I make of men, they’re often men that I know or men that I have known in some capacity, often in a more intimate way. Whereas being out in the world taking pictures, I think that feeling of believing that everyone is good makes me a ‘Yes’ person, and that leads me into interesting circumstances! Which I think is something I really love about photography, it gives me access, it gives me permission to be somewhere and do something.
I want to ask Molly the same, but particularly about the men you photograph nude, because...
Molly Matalon: There’s a lot happening!
Yeah! It’s kind of a double question that Jamie can hopefully follow on from, about the male nudes, because they’re obviously a very specific recurring image in the work and there’s a real notion of vulnerability and tenderness that I think is quite arresting and really significant in relation to the ongoing discussions of toxic masculinity in America.
Molly Matalon: So for me, it’s a little different. With the people in my pictures, it’s kind of a scale. On one end, is very close friends, and the other is somewhere between; “I’ve slept with them once” or never have slept with them, they’re new to me, but all of it is under this umbrella of a certain level of lust that I have for them, and it’s imbued with that atmosphere. I’m often giving them cues. Like: “Oh, I’m thinking about a picture where your shirt’s off and you’re leaning against this wall.” But I’m usually too nervous to push that envelope, and the nervousness comes from being attracted to them, but also wanting them to respect me. And I think that’s because I’m partially figuring out what women desire on a visual level, which is virtually uncharted territory.
“I think that moving from Ohio to a place like New York, or a big city in the US, you are forced to recognise how sort of strange the place you grew up is” – Caroline Tompkins
Jamie Allan Shaw: What you just said is exactly what I wanted the show to be about essentially; that uncharted territory. I kind of played on a base storyline, in the sense that Molly would assume the kind of housewife figure or someone who is in-situ in a domestic environment. And then Caroline was supposed to be the antithesis to this in the sense that she would be the outdoors element. I wanted to have an internal and external example of the American landscape.
Caroline Tompkins: I think that housewife element goes back again to the “we’re not like other girls, but we are like other girls” thing. You know, not being judgemental or discrediting of women in those roles, not being rejecting of that.
That reminds me of the series that Molly did with her mum (2014’s Mom). It’s really sensitive and really honest and accepting of the role that beauty standards have played and how your mum engaged with them, and I found that really refreshing.
Molly Matalon: Yeah and I think it’s interesting because that work started off with a jumping off point of hostility, and trying to figure out what this person is in my life by looking at it and just describing it. I would photograph her in Florida and then come home to New York and look at the work I would think like. “Wow, this person is very proud to adorn themselves or wear makeup or have plastic surgery…” You know, it makes her an individual, and that’s not a negative comment on being a woman or beauty in general.
Absolutely. I had another question for Caroline on a slightly different topic, I wanted to ask if you’ve ever felt like you had a duty, as someone who’s grown up in a part of America that’s perhaps not so well known, to shed some light on those areas of the country that are subject to misconceptions from outsiders and perhaps even other Americans who are from the coasts…
Caroline Tompkins: Yeah, with Ohio specifically, I was just fascinated by it as a place. I think when you’re young you’re like: this is funny, I’m gonna point at it, or use photography to point at it… but then you get to a point where you’re like, oh, this is actually really beautiful. I don’t think I feel a duty to represent America by any means, but I think that’s just where I like to take pictures. I’m happy when I can travel around the country, with this kind of permission slip of photography, to see these things.
Jamie Allan Shaw: From a feminist perspective, and in terms of updating our view of American photography and America, that permission slip is such a fucking perfect analogy for something that previously, over history, has not been there. And that’s really cool to me, in a sense of everything, not just photography. The notion of putting two women in a show together, talking about something that’s as big as America, that permission slip is something that they should have always, all people should, and hopefully, it’s where we’re going in the future!
Molly Matalon is currently working on her upcoming book When a Man Loves a Woman, due for release next year; Caroline Tompkins, having just left her role as Photo Editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, is planning future photo projects