Tag Archives: fashion photography

“Groin Gazing”: Taboos, Penises, and “Fashion” Photography (NSFW)

Laurie and Debbie say:

Photographer Claire Milbrath did a fashion photography shoot for Vice (a print and online magazine) called “Groin Gazing,” in which casual clothes are (apparently) being sold to men (sexual orientation unknown) by means of torso and groin shots, showing (apparently) erect penises under the clothes on offer.

brown shirt, brown jeans, bowling ball

Tracy Moore at Jezebel picked this up:

I think it’s all just great. The beauty of it is that the spread can function on multiple levels — 1.) it’s a bunch of dudes’ clothed boners. 2.) They are depicted as types, with no heads or faces, as women are often shot in spreads (“dismembered”) 3.) The effect is a powerful one: It wordlessly comments on how women are shot while also upending a lot of assumptions about what hetero women want, like, enjoy, think about, when it comes to men and images.

Moore seems quite confident that the photography is directed at women, and is making women happy (and she has some tweets to back up her claim). The spread, however, raises lots of issues:

Because of the amazing level of taboo about penis pictures in our culture, we can’t even be sure of Moore’s first point. Is it a bunch of dudes’ clothed boners? Or a bunch of dildos under clothes? (Is that why a lot of the dicks look so much alike? Is that why the poses each have very generic names, like “the baseball player” or “the boy next door”? The dude above is “the chongo.”) How different is this from lingerie ads before the entire female body became acceptable media fodder?


We can’t help but notice that the penis taboo has two very separate aspects. The taboo against erect penises is primarily an erotic taboo. Outside of gay male porn, there are very few places we can see photographs of erect penises, or learn anything about what they’re like, except for the ones we might have an opportunity to see in real life. That makes Milbrath’s photos (or the earlier Calvin Klein ads) a target of curiosity: how long? how thick? curved? Also, if you take a minute to try to imagine the men in these pictures, in these poses without clothes, the effect changes drastically, in part because the erect penis is so strongly linked with erotic/pornographic imagery. Also, if they were nude, we could see their real bodies, not just a photographic fantasy, and that would change everything.


The taboo against relaxed penises is primarily a male-protective taboo. With the exception of Laurie’s photographs (more of which can be found in Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes), there are even fewer places where anyone can see photographs of relaxed penises, and most men are uncomfortable showing them except in situations even more intimate than sex. Jonathan D. Katz addresses this issue in Familiar Men. Katz says:

Female nudity can be ubiquitous, but to present the male body threatens to give the lie to the rich meanings we associate with it. All of which may explain why it’s so rare to see naked or near-naked men in art, advertising, popular media, or that host of other venues in which the female body is now coin of the realm. … I think novelist Dorothy Allison said it best when she remarked that she thought the penis was the original source of the literary concept of irony, that something so small and vulnerable could be accorded such impressive powers. To see a penis is to know that it couldn’t possibly be a phallus.


Given the intensity and complexity of the taboos, who is the audience for this work? Straight women (who seem to be having a good time, and who maybe buy clothes for their partners)? Straight men (who are the bulk of the audience who theoretically might buy the clothes)? Gay men (the only group which has lots of access to erotic penis pictures whenever they want)?

And why are the photos headless? Moore thinks it’s a comment on headless shots of women, and she’s almost certainly right. But this choice, along with the generic names for the men in the photographs, also functions as a comment on penises and taboos: the topic is so charged the men have to be anonymous.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for pointing out the Jezebel article.

(Penis photographs by Laurie Toby Edison, from Familiar Men.)

Dead Women, Dead Turtles: Fashion Photography and the BP Oil Spill

Debbie says:

WARNING: Seriously potentially triggering images of dead-looking women amid oil spill damage.

Remember heroin chic? Now it’s oil spill chic. Lisa at Sociological Images shares with us Vogue Italia’s photo spread “Women and Oil” in which the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is appropriated into an “edgy” fashion shoot.

Lisa says:

I see nothing at all ironic about highlighting the destruction of working-class people’s livelihoods with obscenely expensive clothes designed primarily to enhance the status of elite fashion designers and the rich people who can wear them.

I also think that a great way to address the destruction of ecologies and death of thousands of animals by oil is to dramatize it with women substituting for the animals. I love seeing women who appear to be dead or dying! It makes me feel so beautiful and good about myself! I mean, this fashion shoot says nothing if it doesn’t say “we care.”

Thin blonde women in unreal clothes, dead on oil-soaked shores, and at least some parts of our culture think this kind of imagery is not destructive.

This one looks to me like it’s from a violent crime movie:

torso, head, and hair of a blonde woman, lying dead-looking in an oil puddle on the edge of a beach

Is she dead or is she masturbating?

young blonde woman in leathers, sprawled on jagged oil rocks, one hand limp at her crotch

Are those oil stains on her arms and legs? Or are they ornate lacy stockings and gloves?

blonde woman in black sprawled on jagged rocks. Ribbons of oil

Lisa’s point, based on this and many other blogs about this kind of photography, is that “We must hate [women]. … Why else this constant glorification of their abuse?”

Of course, Lisa is right about woman-hating. However, something else is also going on.

BP went to great lengths to suppress pictures of oil-stained wildlife. But no one will try to suppress these photos. We’re much more inured to pictures of dead women than we are to pictures of dead birds and turtles. We see dead or dead-looking women everywhere: fashion photography, art photography, television, movies. We see stained and misused and pathetic looking women even more often, and even more places. We’re lucky if we don’t see the real thing. Dead birds and turtles are much rarer, and much more shocking.

And (as Lisa indicates) what we see the least of, always, is images and stories of the lives that are changed for the worse: workers with environmental illnesses, oyster farmers, fisherman, Gulf community dwellers (more likely to be affected based on their income and their skin color).

I don’t just hate the way fashion photography glamorizes dead women, or just hate the way these images are made familiar. I also hate the way glorified images of dead women are used to obscure true stories … including true stories of dead women (and dead turtles), and women (and turtles) whose lives could be saved.