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Jacob Watching TV 2016
"Jacob Watching TV", 2016© Tyler Udall / The Little Black Gallery

Raw portraits capture a soft, modern masculinity

Photographer Tyler Udall’s latest series of portraits depict the progressive aesthetic of manhood

The traditional face of masculinity is slowly changing. Tyler Udall – not only an established photographer but former fashion editor here at Dazed – is one of many photographers presenting raw, beautiful images of masculinity at its most vulnerable. From portraits of boys dressed in heels and underwear to lean-limbed men captured in rare moments of post-coital candour, Udall’s work is carefully unpicking the concept of hyper-masculinity and, as a result, ushering in a progressive new aesthetic of modern manhood.

In just a few weeks his latest photo series, Etudes, will launch at Photofairs San Francisco before migrating to London’s The Little Black Gallery on May 30th; in celebration, we reached out to explore the themes of Udall’s latest work as well as to discuss changing attitudes towards sex and masculinity.

When did you first start experimenting with photography?

Tyler Udall: I first started experimenting in 2010 and, to be honest, I was petrified to take photos. I had been working with such prolific artists – I almost exclusively worked with fine art photographers when I was fashion editor – so I think I took a different approach in that respect. Through my work I became familiar with artists’ processes and worldviews and, thankfully, sponged up some photographic techniques along the way. I started by taking pictures of abstractions – at the time I was quite taken with artists like James Welling and Uta Barth so I started looking for abnormalities in everyday environments. To be honest though, I think they were quite terrible!

How did you come to develop the themes present within your photography now?

Tyler Udall: Well at first I was ‘casting’ in a sense, stealing moments from strangers on the street. Then I began to think I couldn’t just take these things from people I don’t know; it felt very violating. At the time I was frequenting sex clubs and became fascinated by how social barriers came crashing down there; they were these anonymous environments and I loved the camaraderie between everyone from lonely old men to young teenagers. Everyone was there for the same reason, I loved that candour.

I found – particularly with men – that after they’ve had sex their barriers come down and the real good stuff starts to come out... it was so raw, beautiful and real, so that’s what I started to photograph in these sex clubs. Again they were all anonymous and abstracted – limbs and spaces and even self-portraits, but that struck a chord with me and became a departure point for how I wanted to grow as an artist and photographer.

“I don’t really know what that connection is between exchanging bodily fluids and opening up emotionally, but at the end of the day we’re all here because of sex so there’s got to be some innate fascination with it” – Tyler Udall

Sex is unique in that it’s of fascination to us but it’s not something society talks about often. Do you think that’s changing?

Tyler Udall: I honestly think there’s a difference for men and women; men are socially groomed to be very guarded and emotionally unavailable, whereas women are almost groomed to be the exact opposite. Not to make a sweeping generalisation, but men after seem to allow themselves to show vulnerability and actually talk about things in a way that seems genuine and unfiltered. I think that’s pretty rare. I don’t really know what that connection is between exchanging bodily fluids and opening up emotionally, but at the end of the day we’re all here because of sex so there’s got to be some innate fascination with it.

How important is to showcase vulnerability within men?

Tyler Udall: Very important. We’re living in age which imposes layers of mini-lies on top of others, which I think is a new phenomenon. I was listening to mainsteam radio and the songs I hear – not to say that they’re good or bad – but I have zero emotional connection to them because of those filters. It used to be the case that you could listen to a song and immediately get such a clear sense of who the aritst is, but we’ve gone so far away from that. For me, the more I can peel back those layers the better because that’s where the good stuff is – or at least the stuff I connect to. We connect to truths; I think it’s important to start guiding people back in that direction.

Has viewing people through the lens of a photographer altered your perception of beauty?

Tyler Udall: I don’t think so actually. When I was working in fashion, the bulk of people I shot were not represented models although many went on to be; there was something I saw in them which I thought was unique and pure, and it wasn’t just bone structure and good skin. It was more the kind of person they are. There are so many physically ideal people walking around now because we have access to clothes, food, exercise, anything you need to make yourself look a certain way at your fingertips. I think there are a lot of ‘ugly’ people that are extremely beautiful; those veneers of ideal beauty aren’t fooling as many people as they used to.

Has your background in fashion influenced the way you photograph?

Tyler Udall: I’m sure in some ways it has. I’ve become taken with Gen Z and how they dress, the approach to fashion is going back to a more intuitive place. There’s a lot of nudity in my photography but I’m now really enjoying taking pictures of these peple clothed because, for me, their clothing is intertwined with their identity.

As a past fashion editor of Dazed, your eye has been specifically trained as an editor, how is that process as a photographer?

Tyler Udall: When I first started taking pictures, I was editing an image before I even took it, I guess that’s where my brain immediately went to. I was looking for the right edit, and that was a difficult habit to break. Now, my process is two parts. There’s shooting, and that’s very haphazard – I’m looking to steal those moments. Then there’s editing which is long and meditative, whereas the actual physical shooting process is very quick. When I worked in fashion I would often see models bored, gazing out of the window with her hair and make-up done... I would think “fuck, why is nobody taking this picture?” It was more beautiful to me, so I make a conscious effort to be spontaneous and avoid contrition.

Finally, the recurring focus on masculinity – particularly progressive depictions of masculinity. Was that a conscious decision or did it just fall into place?

Tyler Udall: It really just fell into place. So much of it is therapy in a certain way; through my lens I’m looking at my own views of masculinity, myself and my old issues. I was raised in a society that didn’t celebrate the kind of masculinity that felt intuitive to me, so I’m reprogramming myself to see what that means to me and where my place is as a man in the world today.

Etudes launches at Photofairs San Francisco 27 – 29 January 2017 before migrating to London’s The Little Black Gallery on 30 May