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I recently read a friend's writing on how overall there are few artistic photos of nude men, but there is a recent trend of male celebrities doing "implied nudes" or slightly covered nudes. It got me to thinking why there are few nude art photos of men. My thoughts of this have evolved from the obvious to a more nuanced and even bigoted reasons there are so few photos of nude men compared women.
In the past, I felt the reason was that men have external bits compared to women. The obvious penis draws the eye instantly and seems much more extreme than just being able to see the pubic hair of women. It makes us see him as not only nude, but naked. If he has anything more than a purely flaccid penis, it adds so much more charge to the image. A woman's arousal is much less immediately obvious visually.
Recently, I've evolved my thoughts on this topic. My new thoughts come from the realities conveyed in photography vs. paintings and other media. There are many paintings and statues of nude men, many showing penises, some even have erections. It is a different world for photography.
Let's say I recreated through photography a classic painting that had a nude male. During this recreation, I match color, lighting, even the model looks as identical as possible. I am willing to say that photo would be judged more harshly because of the reality of photography.
If I paint someone, I am taking what is perceived in my brain, through my eyes, and then I transfer to the canvas with brushes and paint. It has been reduced in realism by being filtered through my brain and hand. People feel a disconnect to the subject as being real because they know I could have changed any details, grand or subtle, due to the freedom of a blank canvas. They know this is how I saw and recreated it, not a direct capture of the moment.
If I photograph that person, you are seeing a literal visual recording of that person. We trust photographs to be true (even though Photoshop is causing us to question that now) at a logical and instinctual level. That "realness" makes us feel an immediate connection as a witness to the moment, not just a viewer of a recreation.
Now, let us take that to photographing nudes versus painting them. If I paint a nude, it means I could of used a photo as inspiration or had a live art model in front of me, or just recreated a memory or a creation from the ether of my mind. If I photograph a nude, that means I was in the same room, the same moment with that model. It is proof! It brings up questions of my intent, my interactions, my relationship with the model. It is much more personal.
Let us now say it is a male versus female. We get into the physical external and visible parts while not seeing the internal parts. We are seeing a real penis vs a woman's pubic hair is much more obvious in a photo than a painting. This photo then feels and is perceived as real. What does that mean? It means I am making the viewer share a moment with that naked model and his nudity. This can make many people, especially men who are uncomfortable with homosexuality, and anything that could feel "gay", even if the photo is not erotic.
Now I am going to go to a recent non-art world example. Video and photos make us feel intimately close to the subject. When Michael Sam, an openly gay football player, found out he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams he kissed his boyfriend in celebration. So many people thought it was disgusting and that Sam was forcing his "gay lifestyle" into their faces. It was too real for them to handle. If it had been a cartoon or a painting of their kiss, it may not have been as shocking to some. The double standard though is that if he had a girlfriend and gave her the same kiss, no one would have cared or complained. For many, this homophobia may live below their conscious level and be more of a visceral, primal reaction that influences their cognitive thinking.
For many, that realism of photography makes them share a space with a naked man (or a football player kissing his boyfriend) and sadly so many can't get past that and just truly evaluate and appreciate the art for what it is. This is true for nudes of women, but due to so many millions more photos of nude women being out there and also with less perceived feelings of threat by their nudity, the feelings may feel more directed as wanting a connection to the female models*.
Maybe someday we will see enough nude men that those of us threatened by internal homosexual phobias and bigoted beliefs that lay below our conscious minds will get past our initial reactions. I hope this is changing sooner than I think it really is.
*Please note, I am only scratching the surface of how women are objectified in all aspects of our culture and also how it is accepted as "normal". I don't mean to diminish or trivialize those issues, challenges, and problems.