How to be a Bloke: Austn Fischer’s photographic investigation into British masculine “performance”
Taking inspiration from theorist Judith Butler and photographer Irving Pen, Austn Fischer continues his exploration of gender identity with a series looking at “complex” masculinity in the UK.
- Olivia Hingley
- 1 February 2023
For the photographer Austn Fischer, the things that most inspire his photography are the things that “confuse” him. And currently, what most confuses Austn is the performance of gender. “Gender and masculinity are at the forefront of my current practice because I don’t fully understand them,” he details. “I’ve never felt that the masculinity I grew up with was something I identified with. I found it to be abrasive and alienating.”
When we last caught up, Austn was focusing on similar themes throughout his series American Sugar, which examined aspects of masculinity in the US after he had left London during the pandemic, returning to his family home in a small town in Wisconsin. Following on from this, How to be a Bloke is instead influenced by Austn’s perceptions of gender in the UK, where he has since moved back to. “When I moved to the UK, I found masculinity extremely complex. It seemed way more feminine, but at another end hyper masculine,” Austin says. “There exists a fine line between identifying as male, of not being so feminine to appear queer but being sensitive enough to attract women.”
Theoretically, much of Austn’s work is inspired by Judith Butler, a stalwart of gender theory. Writer of the landmark book Gender Trouble – in which she conceptualised the idea of gender as ‘performance’ – it’s easy to see how her writings inform the basis of Austn’s work. Aesthetically, Austn is broadly inspired by classical imagery, and the black and white portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Avedon. For this project, however, Irving Penn’s carpet and white wall shoots provided the biggest visual influence. Taking a simple approach to set design and placing his subjects in confined spaces, Austn emulates Penn’s work, while adding a modern twist enhanced by the avant-garde, distinctive styling.
On the subject of styling, for How to be a Bloke, Austn teamed up with the stylist Douglas Miller. Like Austn, Douglas is also from a small town (though this time in Scotland) and similarly has qualms with modern masculine presentation. Austn explains: “Douglas and I both experienced a feeling of dressing up to portray masculinity which always felt like a performance.” But, this feeling is one flipped on its head and played with throughout the series. Combining it with the memory of dressing up as a young boy, the costumes become something contradictory; with elements signifying more traditional ‘feminine’ items, others directly referencing typical ideas of ‘masculinity’, and some more ambiguous in their representation.
In one image of the model Manyoun, Austn draws attention to such contradictions. In the shot Mayoun stands in the centre of the frame, his arms held backward, staring directly down the camera, wearing an army hat which Austn says “hints at the idea of violence and potential struggle”. But, alongside this, Manyoun wears frilly trousers, and atop sits a chastity belt which Austn tells us signifies “repressed sexuality”. Leaving him bare on his upper half Austn says leaves open the potential for “objectification". He continues: “We invite the viewer to examine him, his body, his clothing. These motifs show how dressing up in a certain style creates an identity created at first glance based on the viewer’s perception.”
Challenging audience perception is a foremost desire of Austn’s, as he explains his goal of creating conversation, and intrigue throughout individual projects and his work. “I always try to create work that creates a conversation,” he details. “I think art should be interrogated and it's for the viewer to decide what the images mean to them.” How to be a Bloke is part of Austn’s wider explorations of gender and masculinity, and continuing his collaboration with Douglas, Austn plans to release a book next year focusing on the subjects and his work as a whole.
GalleryAustn Fischer: How to be a Bloke (Copyright @ Austn Fischer, 2022)
Austn Fischer: How to be a Bloke (Copyright @ Austn Fischer, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.