Backed into a Corner by Michal Tokarczuk
Polish photographer Michal Tokarczuk stands out for the visionary ways in which he has re-imagined the traditionally narrow field of portrait photography. His photographs are often unabashedly sexual or controversial but always incredibly versatile, ranging from dominatrix women in lingerie and latex; pretty, ethereal fashion shoots; candid, almost journalistic shots of people on the street; to the avant-garde and conceptual, as in one notable shoot where a model covered in white paint leers at the camera with blood dripping from her eyes. He is daring, incendiary, and unapologetic – yet he is not a mere provocateur, intending to simply shock and scandalize the audience. His work somehow also carries a tender, exquisite artistry. For example, he has said that his Wet Curtain series, which features bare female bodies wrapped in wet white sheets, is not about sexualizing the female figure but rather about “the plentitude of shapes, wrinkles, body parts emerging from behind the material”. It is this focus on the beauty and art of the nude human form that remains constant throughout the prolific variety of styles he experiments with.
In this piece, a man sits in a tiny, grimy room, gun in hand and naked except for an incongruously jaunty cap placed on his head. His bare, unadorned body echoes the bare, unadorned walls, and neither provide clues as to where this man is or what – or whom – he is waiting for despite the obvious question of his firearm. Whatever he is preparing himself for, the man clearly has no routes of escape: he is quite literally backed into a corner. The gun he wields is placed in the direct center of the photograph, highlighting the fact that this rather unimpressive weapon is his only means of self-defense, yet his facial expression is remarkably calm.
Nudity in art typically symbolizes an unguarded, intimate honesty, but in this photograph the subject’s nakedness seems to represent brashness instead of vulnerability. This man has nothing to hide and needs nothing to hide behind. In the face of this mysterious external danger, he exudes an easy confidence that borders almost on insolence. The cigar he is smoking – traditionally seen as a symbol of masculinity and luxury – brazenly flaunts his irreverent attitude, and his straight back and immaculate posture augment this sense of pride. Having accepted the inevitability of his fate, the man is now prepared to put up a fight to the best of his ability and go down with dignity. He seems to represent the enduring, fighting nature of the human spirit. Although we know how his story will end, we cannot help but admire the bravery with which he faces his doom and hope to emulate his fearless attitude in our own lives.
What does this man seem to represent to you?