Masc is a photography series by Craig Waddell exploring queer identity, particularly masculinity, through formal portraiture. Waddell started working on the series in 2016 and it has been photographed almost wholly in Scotland, mostly between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
In this interview to welcome eight of Waddell’s works to the collection at the National Galleries of Scotland, curator Louise Pearson speaks to the photographer about the themes of the analogue medium format series.
Louise Pearson: Your series Masc explores queer identity, particularly masculinity, through formal portraiture. Why did you want to explore these themes through formal portraiture particularly?
Craig Waddell: Increasingly there is a lot more queer representation in photography and fine art but I found a lot of it was falling either into two camps: either incredibly performative and over the top or really, really intimate. So I thought formal portraiture would be a middle ground between those two things. It at once has the presence and dignity of something performative but it also feels a lot more personal. And as a format I felt I wasn’t seeing a lot of queer people in those portraits. If you look at the canon of classical formal portraiture and painting, it is all very heteronormative. It falls into very distinct gender roles so because of that it is quite an interesting format to play around with and to take those tropes and queer them a bit and turn things on their head. That was my main motivation for using it.
LP: You have spoken about how collaboration is an important aspect of your photography. I wondered if you could tell us a bit more about how you work with sitters to ensure they are happy with how they are represented? They feel like they are very confident in their portraits, so if you could talk a bit about how you achieved that connection with the sitter.
CW: A lot of the people that I photograph, especially a lot of the ones represented in the acquisition are people that I know, so they are either people I have met on the queer scene in Edinburgh, or they are friends of mine or friends of friends so there was already a relationship there. It’s quite rare I would go into shooting a portrait completely cold without meeting the person. I guess that helps with the ease of it.
Before I take the pictures, I say to people that they have complete freedom to represent themselves how they want. I ask them to have a think about how they’d like to dress, where they’d like to be photographed. I tend to photograph people a lot in their homes. When I do come round and photograph them, I ask if there is anywhere that they want to try, anywhere that they think is going to work for them. Within that there are rules for me. It is all naturally lit from one side, so I tell people to wear a lot of black but apart from that I let them do what they like.
When I am shooting as well, I try to keep any direction to a minimum. I let people fall naturally into the poses they feel most comfortable in. Again, basic directions such as turn of the head, light and basic more photographic stuff. But I try and leave it up to them really. After I have shot, I go through images with people and ask is this the sort of thing you’d be happy with or represents you?
LP: They do look very comfortable in the series, and what you are saying about natural light and the quality of light I think is a very strong constant across the whole series as well. One aspect that jumped out at me was the focus on clothing, jewellery and make-up which I think adds drama and richness to the portraits. I wondered whether you had thought about how outward appearance is used to express our identities in the making of the series?
CW: I have and I think it comes down to two main aspects. It is the number one way that we can present our identity to people on the outside, but it also signals to other people that you are part of a community and part of a group, and you can use that as a way to find things in common with people. It is such an easy way to build yourself as the person you want to be. Your own presentation is something you have control over. I think that was my approach to letting people choose. I was never disappointed with the way that people presented themselves in the portraits. It brought so much richness, so much character that when I started shooting, I realised this was something I needed to keep doing because it just brings a lot of interesting elements to the pictures.
LP: The portraits are entering a portrait gallery collection so there is an interesting juxtaposition with some of the historic portraits that we have on display. In the future we might think about putting them next to each other and bringing out the connections. In particular, in the portrait of Oskar Kirk Hansen, the richness of the fabric and the pearls, I can really see the connection to some of the historic portraiture. I wondered if you wanted to talk about any of the portraits in particular.
CW: One of my dreams for the series was for it to be represented in that same context because it is so referential of those historical pieces. The idea that it is in conversation with those and bringing queer identities into that same space is something that I find exciting about it.
In terms of specific portraits, one of my favourites of the series and he is somebody I collaborate with frequently is Samuel Froggatt who is represented in one of the newer pieces. We work together quite regularly; it is probably about once a year that we take pictures, and he is just a really fantastic person. I remember I saw him walking down the corridor on his first day at art school and I thought ‘Oh my God, I need to take that person’s picture.’ We have been friends and collaborators ever since.
This portrait was taken in a flat in Edinburgh. Sam is a visual artist but he also has a collection of vintage clothing, so he had this, I think it’s a 1930s vintage theatre dress. He told me about it, and I thought ‘we need to do something’. Again, there was this play on gender this huge, long dress. He is incredibly natural in his posing; I never have to direct him at all. So that was a really special one for me and in terms of the whole visuality of the piece, the quality of the light the colouring, it was a real moment for me in the series.
LP: I think that is one of my favourites from the series. One of the other things about that portrait that feels slightly different from the others is that it is a full-length portrait, and it feels a little bit more theatrical than just focusing on the person so it’s nice to have that mix in the series.
CW: I think so. When I first started photographing the series, I was really keen on that gaze as well, the sitter meeting the gaze of the person looking at the picture. As it developed, I realised it wasn’t as key to the pictures, it was interesting to play with something more theatrical. It’s nice to mix it up in the series and I think that is why it is one of the strongest pieces in my opinion.
LP: The pose or the gaze are different ways of showing someone’s personality. I think one of the other portraits that I particularly was drawn to was Ethereal Andy and the really direct gaze with the photographer. But in a very different way that is quite a simple portrait in terms of how he has chosen to dress. So, I think the contrast is nice. It really does celebrate the diversity of the queer community so that is a really strong point about the series.
CW: On that point of diversity, it is something I continue to try and strive for, to find lots of different groups of people to photograph in the series. It is an ongoing project and something I am still working on. It is exciting to meet a lot of these people who represent my journey of finding my own identity and finding my place in the world as a queer person.
The portrait of James Robert Faulkner was the second one that I ever shot; he is just such a presence in the queer community. He is drag mother to lots of drag artists in Edinburgh and is such a stalwart. It is exciting to see people like that and Oskar Kirk Hansen, who runs one of the big drag shows in Edinburgh. It’s really lovely that in shooting the project I am able to celebrate people like that who have been important to me.
This interview was conducted in February 2022.
Welcoming new artists to the collection
We want to show you who lives in Scotland today and Art Fund are helping us do that.
Census year is an opportunity to think about who isn’t in our collection. We know some of you don’t see yourself in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. We want to change that.
There are lots of new acquisitions in Counted: Scotland's Census 2022. We hope they give you a sense of the wonderful range of people living in Scotland.
We’ve worked with photographers from a range of backgrounds. For many of them, it’s the first time they have had their work shown in a gallery.
We’ve got plans to do more. We’ll be commissioning new portraits over the next few years. We’re thinking about what else we can do to make it a Portrait Gallery for everyone.
We’d love to hear your views. Get in touch by emailing [email protected]org