In Conversation: Molly Matalon on “When a Man Loves a Woman”

Molly Matalon is a photographer born and raised in South Florida. She received her BFA in photography from The School of Visual Arts in New York City. Her work deals with desire, idealization, and power dynamics, fixing a gaze that empowers and provides a rarely seen female photographic viewpoint. This sincere and personal language is carried through into her editorial work and can be seen in The New York Times, M Le Monde, Interview Magazine, and Wallpaper. She has had two monographs published by Vuu studio and exhibited work in The United States and internationally. She has a third monograph out with the London based publishers Palm* Studios, When A Man Loves A Woman. Matalon currently lives and works in New York.

We spoke with photographer Molly Matalon on the release of her new photobook “When a Man Loves a Woman” recently published by Palm Studios in London. From a collection of staged portraits of men and a series of still-life images of fruit and flowers, Matalon navigates through the concept of female desire and the representation of the male body. We ask her about her understanding of desire, gender-roles, her approach to photography, and how to find the balance between sharing work with the world and keeping it to oneself.

When A Man Loves A Woman

“Drawing from the male-dominated history of “straight photography,” Matalon’s images have a seductive clarity that evokes how our perceptions are sharpened in the excitement of an erotic encounter, and how those encounters are packaged and marketed back to us. But the intimacy being proffered by the subject or conjured by Matalon is rarely explicitly sexual, but rather quiet, vulnerable, tenderly perverse, akin to the tentative probing of someone seeking intimacy rather than a confident recounting of conquests by someone who has found it. The photos are a reciprocal performance: the chance for Matalon to create a close atmosphere with a subject under the pretext of a photo, and a chance for that subject to express their hope to be desired by a future audience. It is a collection less about the friction of bodies, which are often formally isolated in Matalon’s compositions, than the vivid and vivifying frisson of encounter.” – Nich McElroy

Sara Arroyo: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, it’s a pleasure speaking about your work with you. In “When a Man Loves a Woman” you turn your gaze to the male body, inevitably questioning the dynamics of sexual representation that have been imposed and standardized by the patriarchal system. Was this your intention with this project? Or did it become a reading you were expecting but not particularly working towards to while developing the project?

Molly Matalon: Thank you! My intention was never to make work that specifically questions the dynamics set out by these systems we’ve lived amongst, no. Not in those editorialized terms. Does it reveal itself eventually when the work is sequenced together? Yes. It’s inevitable as a woman photographing men. It’s also inescapable as a topic for women. It’s not that I’m uninterested in those ideas, at this point though, I sincerely was interested in looking at men from a point of desire. I like looking at men, from a history of struggling to fit in, whether that be romantically –never having a substantial “real” relationship– or/and being bullied by men my whole life. I just wanted to look at men, and I had a level of access with friends, lovers and new acquaintances that was rooted in a respect or mutual understanding of the kind of pictures I make. This allowed me to collaborate with them in a certain way, and I think that’s why some of the pictures have this sort of “new” view of men.

SA: Yes, another subject at play that derives from “When a Man Loves a Woman” is the expression and representation of female sexual desire, which has always been a non-existent concept and is still struggling not to be. How would you describe your personal experience developing the project in this regard?

MM: Being curious about what female desire looks like has been a big aspect of this work. I kept thinking “I want to make sexy pictures or erotic pictures“, and whenever I would look at what I’d shot I would think “Is this really sexy?” What is that even? I have thought a lot about the overlap from queer desire (men looking at men) to female desire (women looking at men). What are the sexy pictures of men that women have, even? It’s pictures made by other men… So yeah, that’s been a big part of this for me. Maybe what’s erotic to me is the sensual and sensitive private moments I’m having with them.

SA: Exactly. It’s not only the parameters of the representation of desire that have been standardized, but also what we must or must not find desirable. Which in turn extends to who we should love, and how.

Together with the portraits, the fruit and flower still-life photographs in “When a Man Loves a Woman” contribute to the representation of sexual desire. Nevertheless, especially in the use of flowers, the meaning seems to extend even further to touch on the subject of love, bringing to light concepts like beauty, care, and fertility. Fruit and flower still-lives are a recurrent subject-matter in your body of work, what meanings do you derive from these motifs personally, and in the context of this project?

MM: Yes! And I think this goes both ways for men in terms of representation. How do we see men? Is it okay for men to have belly rolls, be sensual and soft, but also still exude a kind of new or rare exoticism?

Well, I think you’ve laid it out quite clearly. I’m drawn to those natural objects because of the semiotics of them. Beauty, a kind of sensitivity and care, fertility, etc. But I also think the pictures themselves (vs the objects in the pictures) function similarly to the portraits. They both are a kind of inaccessible desire; they have the ability to emote something you/we/I can’t ever truly obtain. Just like the men in the pictures, they’re these stand-ins for larger ideas of romance and sexuality. Ultimately, I don’t have that kind of relationship with them. It’s perverted in that way. In the context of the project, in more sort of sassy terms, I just like looking and making these other pictures. There’s so much in the world to look at, why limit yourself to only photographing things that fall into your ‘project’? I think pictures have so much more power than that. They also act as place holders for different kinds of punctuation if this was a written book, and they provide a stage, a location, something real that we recognize in the world as ‘true’.

SA: In the project, to some extent, you seem to overcome your role as a photographer and become a participant in the scene as well. How would you describe your approach to photography?

MM: That aspect is really important to me, specifically in the terms of looking vs being looked at. I think when we are looking at intimate photographs in history like you’ve mentioned, it’s always so clear to see when a man is experiencing desire or demonstrating an attraction. For me at least, it feels important to not just be looking at these subjects but being looked at as well, or being an active participant. For this book specifically, there is a degree to which I’m being vulnerable and perverted, and saying like…”Hey! I’m attracted to these guys!” And/or a level of collaboration in terms of communicating consent the entire time even in basic terms like “are you comfortable with this?” In general though, my relationship to photography is very much an excuse to experience something or someone.

SA: The project also brings into question the concepts of masculinity and femininity. You mentioned earlier having struggled to fit with men, which I believe many of us, as women, have found challenging at some point as well. And probably the other way around too. Somehow in the project, even though the portraits are staged, I feel a strong sense of truth and authenticity comes through, maybe because these codes are being shut down.

MM: Totally. I think examining how masculinity is performed and how it can unravel and be untrue helps us as a society face the direct violence and threat that telling men how they need to be can produce. I think photography’s great ability to emote a sense of authenticity while also at the same time be very clearly a manipulation of a situation, is what keeps bringing me back.

SA: How did you experience the process of editing and sequencing this project? How much of it was revealed to you at this stage? Did you always have in mind the idea of making a book?

MM: The process of editing and sequencing was sort of standard. I had a pretty large archive of pictures that I felt fit with my ideas or just “felt right”, which I think is a nuance of having a visual literacy. It’s about having an unspoken understanding that one picture works better than the other. Since I didn’t want it to be a book of 100 portraits, there was a lot of saying goodbye to. Portraits that I love a lot didn’t make the cut in the end. I always wanted it to be a book, yeah! That’s my favorite way to digest photography.

SA: “When a Man Loves a Woman” is a collection of intimate moments shared with men. Whether staged or not, they did happen and we can feel the presence of both of you in every portrait. Was there ever a time for you in which you felt you didn’t want to share these images with the world and keep them for yourself?

MM: Good question. I think I did hold onto them for a bit, to be honest, I started collecting them around 2016… Lola from Palm approached me about making a book maybe two years ago. At that point I was still feeling quite self-conscious about it all, not having figured out the language for what I was doing. Eventually, we decided it’s like putting book ends on it. I’ll probably keep making work along these lines…forever. It’s a part of my artist’s vision, so to speak. But I think having an art school education and way of thinking about things I always knew I wanted to share it because I feel proud of it. There are so many pictures I keep to myself, ones that…somehow…truly feel intimate and for me, these are usually cellphone pictures, to be honest. I think there’s a fine line between oversharing and never sharing and it’s all about finding that balance.

SA: Towards the end of the book, we encounter an image separated from the rest of the sequence by a blank page; it’s a picture of a sculpture in which a man is embracing a woman. What role does this image play in the project? Also, a little further, we find a text by Chelsea Hodson. What was the starting point of this collaboration with her?

MM: The picture of the couple embracing is a sculpture that was on top of a grave I saw in Italy. To me, it really feels like it’s own piece that encompasses all the themes of the book but in a very direct and obvious way, so we put it in the back in its own space. It’s kind of this release like, yes if you got this far and are looking at this, everything you’re thinking is correct. It’s kind of cheeky in that way.

I’ve been a fan of Chelsea’s work for a long time. We’ve collaborated before; she’s used some of my pictures to illustrate a longer form text she wrote, so there is already this unspoken connection between our works. She wrote a book called Tonight I’m Someone Else and I really resonated with the way she described her relationships. I sent her the book and she responded with that text piece.

SA: The book was supposed to be launched at the LA Art Book Fair in April, which was canceled due to the Coronavirus outbreak. What activities are you involved in these days of confinement? Are you working on something new, or developing any new ideas?

MM: True, huge bummer. I hope the NY one doesn’t also get canceled but we’ll see… These days I’m quarantined with my boyfriend and we’re cooking and taking pictures together, reading, and trying to stay sane. I don’t really have any ideas, hah! Just struggling financially and deeply concerned about the future of the world.

To view more of Molly Matalon’s work please visit her website.

To order a copy of her new book, visit Palm*!