The Worldly Desires of Molly Matalon
“Photography is all about trying to grab and own the thing you desire. This could be a landscape, still life or portrait, but you never get it — all you are left with is a 2D object. Doesn’t that mean you are always objectifying something in photography?” Molly Matalon asks as we sit on her bed in her apartment in Brooklyn.
“It’s about your fantasy being projected into that space,” she says. “That’s a clever thing about photography, it connects with your subconscious to reveal narrative in a way that I haven’t experienced with other art forms. That’s why photographs stay with you, because you can cook up your own ideas of who people in images are.”
As I turn the pages of Matalon’s new book, When a Man Loves a Woman, it is impossible to untangle myself from the photographs. As if holding a mirror, each one triggers a series of memories, real and constructed, of my own desire. Desire for the dog days of summer that are elongated as though endless; desire for the scent of an unfurling lily bud, my favourite flower; sexual desire rooted in my own longing – in her images the men become stand-ins, triggering thoughts of my own arousal. Desire is something I have given a lot of thought to over the past few years, an emotion I had previously suppressed. Matalon’s images encourage you to sit with it, to loll in it – to splash around in your own desire.
“If you look at the range of images of desire, we have pornographic pictures, intimate pictures of lovers, advertising and editorial magazine pictures. When men are the subject of these pictures we see them in such a specific way. Generally they’re depicted as some version of a YMCA-type character. Cop, firefighter, etc – stereotypical roles. I am curious, what do the sexy pictures of men that straight women want look like? So many ‘sexy’ images of men are part of a larger history of queer and homoerotic imagining. These are pictures of men, by men. What would both men and women’s desire look like if they were in a Venn diagram?” Matalon wonders.
Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, mainstream media has constructed fantasies of women’s desire to be rescued; stories play out in film and literature of an all-encompassing romantic love that is unobtainable and untenable. Matalon takes up a new tranche of investigation and, through it, she asks what does desire really look like to a heterosexual woman? How do you visually describe that through photography?
Matalon grew up in Florida, hitting puberty just as the internet 2.0 was evolving; she grew up in chat rooms. “I spent a lot of time on the internet. I was really into researching stuff and being in AOL chat rooms with strangers. I’d start by entering a Simpsons-themed one, for example – I loved The Simpsons – but no one actually talked about that. They were spaces where people wanted to sext and talk dirty in private chats. People would ask, ‘What’s your ASL [age, sex, location]?’ I would lie and say 22, blonde, huge boobs, skinny. I don’t really remember what we talked about, just sex stuff. I was 12, so this is a little early for Myspace, that came later. I also liked to play video games, like The Sims or RollerCoaster Tycoon. I was always building worlds.”
Matalon was subjected to bullying and felt like an outsider among the Floridian culture that prides artifice. She struggled to connect, not only to her peers, but also to her mother – a make-up artist from Long Island. Matalon remembers how, during her childhood, her mother, who dresses in head-to-toe cheetah print and collects pig figurines, would sell fake designer bags from the boot of her car. “My mom and both my grandmas worked in the beauty industry. My mom is a make-up artist and my grandmas worked for Chanel, Shiseido and Clinique. I think they had ideas of what a young woman should be and I just didn’t really belong in that construct.” Moving to New York at 18 to study for a BFA in photography at the School of Visual Arts, she started afresh. “I felt blindly confident about photography. ‘I got accepted into this big, important school, I must be good,’ I thought!”
Photography is Matalon’s passion, although she tells me she still carries those feelings of not belonging: “I am really sensitive to feeling like it’s a sob story, but it’s deep within me.” She is one of the most important members of a tight-knit American photo community, and part of five photo group chats – 3$ Salad, Capital C Advisory Board, Here for Gold, New Yorkers, and Girls – that share everything from carpools, memes and equipment to technical, conceptual and emotional support. “I feel like photography is something I really understand,” Matalon says. “I know the visual language of it – it feels good to know what works and what doesn’t, but it also feels good to have something I want to learn more about. Taking pictures is fun and it’s an activity. I struggled knowing what I enjoyed doing when I was a kid. It is also a reason to go somewhere – you can’t use other artistic mediums as a transactional experience with [your subject].”
These “transactions” with men are the strongest images in the book, the portraits tempting the viewer with “little props that make visual sentences about fantasy and possibility and desire”. Reading the photographs with a focus on the relationships she has with these individuals is to miss the point. “Somebody once asked me if I was interested in a real narrative with these men. I responded by asking them what’s the real narrative within photography? It doesn’t exist. There is no start and end, there is no introduction and no route out – you’re just there, as if stopped in time. What you don’t see is the nervous, sweaty person, me, making the picture, and you don’t know how I know this person or what happened afterwards. It lives in this entrance-less, exit-less bubble where you can apply your thoughts to it in the same way you might when you see a beautiful person on the subway and fantasise about them and what their life is like.” Diane Arbus’s adage applies: “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” Interspersed among the portraits are still lifes and landscapes, creating a dialogue that ranges from cheeky to outright provocative. They act as signifiers for consumption and deconstruction – “things falling apart and fading”. The light in the images, warm and soft, acts as a “stage setting for romance and lust”.
Matalon is a very soft person, her eyes, huge and brown, look directly at you when you speak, expectantly. I ask her if she thought about how the images might be interpreted, about whether they objectify the men in them. I feel protective afterwards as she squirms uncomfortably, confronting the idea that her images could be seen as taking advantage of another person. “I feel powerless in the moment of making the picture. It’s not about power to me. Maybe later in the process it’s about power, in a perverted way. When I edit the images I can control the narrative, I can place a picture of X next to a picture of an eggplant, next to a picture of a sunset. Boom!” Matalon gesticulates. “It looks like I am in love with X. But that’s not what is happening in reality. At that moment, I am so vulnerable, I am really putting myself out there. I always respect and love the person in the image and they’re not dumb, they understand semiotics.” The result is captivating: Matalon’s men ensnare you, the images invite the viewer to search the frame for more clues about what might have happened before, what might happen afterwards. Their sexiness is alluring, the quality of intimacy depicted is one that only occurs in a relationship where the layers of artifice have been stripped away.
Matalon offers: “Perhaps the subjects are not thinking about the way I see them, maybe they’re coming at it from an egotistical point of view and want to look good in my pictures and be seen. This is a big part of the work, too. It’s about giving men a stage to be sexy. As a female photographer, the emphasis is always on the feminism aspect of my work. Why can’t we talk about the power that I feel I am giving men in pictures?”
The images teeter on the precipice between love and desire. As the psychotherapist Esther Perel wrote in her revered book Mating in Captivity, “Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery […] Love is about having; desire is about wanting.” Perel’s research suggests that to operate between the two is the key to a successful relationship. “I have never had a boyfriend in my life, or been in any kind of substantial romantic relationship, until very recently, I guess,” Matalon shares. “I have always had crushes but they didn’t work out.” Isn’t it limiting to assume that the relationships we hold and work on throughout our lives, with our friends and family, do not play into our knowledge about love and desire? Why would only the romantic ones count? Matalon, I think, knows much more about love and desire than most.