striking portraits of men of color at their most vulnerable
“Maybe it's because, as a man, I don't have them — or myself — all figured out. So I study the complexities of them and me.”
Marcus Branch turned to portraiture hoping, as a queer male, to understand other men and himself better. His photos capture young males with their guards up (wearing durags, posted up on street corners) and down (showing off bloodshot post-cry red eyes). Primarily shooting men of color, he makes self-described "male studies," the focus on their sitters' interior lives.
"My portraits have taught me the complexities of masculinity," the rising photographer, based in New York and Philadelphia, tells i-D. "I believe that masculinity is in duality with femininity, and that everyone possesses both. What is dubious to me is the direct association of masculinity to men and femininity to women. It develops an expectation that can't be genuinely filled across the board."
Marcus loads his photos with symbolism. There is a gorgeous portrait of a black male staring at the camera with a halved clementine propping his mouth open, his lips spread like a baby sucking on a pacifer. "The slice of a clementine resembles full lips," he explains. "Both are etched with shallow valleys of lines and are strong, but tender and alluringly juicy." And for the striking color composition — the bright-orange of the clementine, the model's velvet-brown skin, and the bottomless black backdrop — Marcus turned to baroque paintings for inspiration. The portrait is about much more than a beautiful male. It's about the drama, sensuality, and tenderness of manhood.
Marcus shares his favorite portraits with i-D and discusses what they taught him about other males and, more importantly, himself.
Have your images brought you closer to other men?
Masculinity is defined as the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men — such as bravery, strength, and independence. The men I've photographed display bravery through self-expression in the face of condemnation. They display strength in their stance on self-truth and their ability to challenge the norm and exhibit independence in that they don't seek the approval or validation from other men considered to be "masculine." These observations have personally brought me closer to men both in intrigue and curiosity about their personalities.
How did you first fall into photography?
I come from West Philadelphia (please don't sing) and have lived in the surrounding towns throughout my childhood. My freshman year in high school is when I first began to take on photography. I began with self-portraits, hoping to have the most fire photos on Myspace to go against the grain of the duckface-extended-arm selfie. From there, I began to photograph my friends, my family, and the passion grew and grew. I studied magazines, painters, and artist of all sorts to inform what I create.
What is it about male subjects that intrigues you?
Maybe it's because, as a man, I don't have them — or myself — all figured out. So I study the complexities of them and me. I'm interested in what's under the performance [of masculinity] evoked by social influence. And I'm fascinated by the beauty of men; not the sexiness or the toughness of them, but their quiet essence and hidden softness…
What goes into a good male study?
It begins with a compelling male subject in his environment. This makes for an honest depiction of the subject at hand. An exploration of vulnerability, honesty, and even a level of intimacy goes into play as the subject and I meet minds. Life stories are shared and bonds are formed, which in turn informs the process and results in truly transcending moments. An honest experience makes a good male study.
Even when your subjects are covered in tats and wearing durags, they possess a compelling softness to them. What's behind this framing?
I have an affinity for quiet moments. The moments often spent alone. I find immense beauty in seeing vulnerability on the faces of the intimidating or unapproachable, because it reveals a depth to that person that I consider to be important for others to see and experience.
What role does blackness play in your photography?
I aim for [my work] to celebrate people of color, encourage diversity, and provide a positive perception of the often misrepresented. I want my photos to speak to the work and cultural influence of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley, and Langston Hughes. Being a black man definitely informs my photos and my perspective as an artist, but it doesn't limit my work's intent, reach, and expression. I don't only make "black work," just like I don't only make "gay work" or "political work." I am multifaceted and come from an array of fusions, thus what I create is a reflection of that. Blackness plays a significant part in my photography, both directly and indirectly, but it is not the only source it is informed by.