“All of us have memories of how strong our emotional feelings were when we were young, how self-conscious we were about our adolescent body,” says Christopher Chapman, curator of the new exhibition Tough & Tender at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. “Thinking about the boys I fell in love with at high-school and the masculine male teachers I aspired to identify with still calls to mind clear memories of being different. I think of this exhibition as a kind of visual poem inspired by these feelings.”
Standing in stark contrast to the Gallery’s permanent collection, Tough & Tender reflects on the formative identity of young adulthood, the complexities of gender and the emotional vulnerability this can entail. The exhibition features photography by Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Collier Schorr, Rozalind Drummond and Warwick Baker, and video art by Chris Burden.
The earliest work on display is a selection of photographs by Larry Clark taken from 1963 to 1980 including his 42nd Street Series that documents Hispanic hustlers near Times Square in New York City. “Clark is an inspiration for some of the other photographers in the exhibition,” says Chapman. “He photographs boys acting tough but he’s showing us that they need to be loved just for who they are too.”
Themes of youth and the loss of innocence appear across Mapplethorpe’s iconic depictions of pre-AIDS homosexuality, Goldin’s intimate portraits of love and heartache, Schorr’s photographs of young men as soldiers and Drummond’s haunting images of Vy, which convey a sense of longing and intrigue.
The youngest artist in the exhibition is Melbourne-based photographer Warwick Baker and most of his work was shot specifically for the exhibition. “Warwick brings a quiet, utterly respectful and calm tone to his photographs of his friends. The fluid and non-binary gender identity that some of his subjects possess is quietly held by them, and through Warwick’s camera communicated directly to us,” says Chapman. “The photos are also seemingly effortless in their composition – although he brings a precise and intuitive skill to his photography in his choice depth-of-field and placement of the subject in their setting.”
Speaking to Baker, it’s clear he cares deeply about his subjects. “I was drawn to them because they are all strong people, and have shown extraordinary courage throughout their lives,” Baker tells me. “Rowan is a non-binary trans woman and an artist. One of the first times I met Rowan she came into the bar I was working with some of her friends and took over the music that was playing and created a dance party. I am often an introverted person, and I am attracted to performative and extroverted people in life and to photograph.”
Baker’s own life is explicit within the images. “Marnie is a friend from Belconnen High School in Canberra,” he explains. “I have been friends with her partner Alice since primary school. The photograph of Marnie and her partner’s baby Immi was taken the first day Marnie returned home from hospital after giving birth. I was the sperm donor for Immi and another child since.”
The photography in Tough & Tender is powerful and direct, and leaves a lasting impression. “Emotional connection – our need to be loved no matter how difficult it can be to express – is, I hope, validated by the images in the exhibition,” Chapman says. “I hope the exhibition reassures us that it’s fine to be different, that self-hood is complex, that it’s worth the bravery required to be yourself.”
Tough & Tender is on display at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra until 16 October 2016