In April of 2012, a court bailiff received an unsolicited image on her phone from her boss, Wade McCree, a Third Circuit Judge in Detroit, Michigan. It was, as she’d later describe it, disturbing: a self-portrait of McCree that showed him from his head to just below the waist and shirtless. Once her husband has seen the image, too, the woman contacted a local news outlet about the sexting episode and, with the hint of scandal in the air, a television reporter was dispatched to the judge’s chambers to question him. Confronted with a printout of what the newscaster characterized as a “tastefully cropped” picture—of McCree grinning and holding up his iPhone to capture the mirrored image of his smooth worked-out torso—the judge’s on camera-response was, surprisingly, one of bemusement, not of chagrin. “Hot dog, yep, that’s me,” the self-satisfied magistrate exclaimed, “There’s no shame to my game.”
In one sense or another, photography is always about exhibitionism. People make pictures to show off what they need to see for themselves and want others respond to. If Judge McCree’s unapologetic response failed to acknowledge the possible impropriety of his actions, the story of his picture underscores the fact that our encounters with photos of bare-chested men have become inescapable. Look around at magazine covers, shopping bags, advertisements, and Facebook pages and it’s clear we’ve entered an unprecedented era of man-gazing in which photography, more than ever, plays a central role in exploring desire and our sense of self.
Visual culture’s archive of images of shirtless men, of course, runs deep. Think back to Tarzan and the oiled-up hunks in the biblical or Dark Ages epics you’ve seen in the movies or on TV. Think of picture magazine stories about half-naked military men on the decks of aircraft carriers, movie stars lounging around pools in their bathing suits, and of barely costumed wrestlers or sweaty boxers in the ring. Think of the cooler surfer-types, hippies, and coy male centerfolds that unfurled from issues of magazines like Cosmopolitan and Playgirl starting in the 1970s. Think back to 1983 and the startling appearance of a gargantuan billboard in Times Square, featuring Bruce Weber’s image of a tan Olympic pole-vaulter clad only in white Calvin Klein briefs, which literally stopped traffic and rewrote the rules about what was appropriate to display and stare at in public.
Three decades later, it’s now the democratisation and obsessive sharing of images of ‘shirtless wonders’ that signals shifts in the representation of masculinity. Walking up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan a few years ago, I came upon what appeared to be another monumental Bruce Weber image of another shirtless young guy in an ad for yet another clothing manufacturer. This time around, though, unresponsive pedestrians just walked beneath the architecturally-scaled pecs and biceps above them without stopping short or taking notice. Things were different a couple of blocks north at Abercrombie & Fitch’s flagship store. While window displays and interiors featured still more of Weber’s accomplished beefcake work, what was really exciting shoppers was the chance to sidle up to the handsome and accommodating bare-chested greeters that A&F hires to man the doorways of its high-traffic emporiums and pose for pictures.
Photographically speaking, the introduction of Polaroid’s Swinger and SX-70 model cameras in the mid-1960s and 70s were landmark events in that era’s sexual revolution; they made it both possible and fun for people to take and share images of their bodies and those of others, free of the censorious eyes of photo-processors. Today, the digital tools at our disposal multiply imaging options on those fronts. Given the proliferation of more ‘graphic’ amateur porn, and the media’s gleeful documentation of celebrity ‘wardrobe malfunctions’, the sub-genre of shirtless photography might seem soft-core and quaint. The fact that it is pursued so insistently by so many, however, suggests it’s still useful and worthy of note.
At this very moment and all around the world, men with shirts off and camera phones in hand are positioned in front of mirrors in bathrooms, bedrooms and in locker rooms. In a trial-and-error and performative process, they’ll pivot this way and that, testing out which expressions and poses best signify their power and/or attractiveness. There are all sorts of options to attend to: attitude, stance, wardrobe, styling, and propping. The motivations that drive these images are varied: there’s curiosity, vanity, and enticement, to name a few. And while they may be made primarily for self-scrutiny, they are often produced with specific viewers in mind.
But, as happened in the case of Magistrate McCree, a number of these pictures will reach unintended audiences. Some may end up on websites like the not-quite-safe-for-work Guys with iPhones, where one can see how easily shirtlessness can lead to pantlessness. Some will make news, like the photos that New York politician Anthony Weiner tweeted to some admiring women in 2011, which quickly went viral and derailed his career.
On the other hand, shirtless shots of politicians have been more strategically made and distributed with other goals in mind. When Aaron Schock, a young member of the U.S. House of Representatives, appeared on the May 2011 cover of Men’s Health magazine, his lovingly lit six-pack was meant to remind ooglers and readers that the Republican Party still has some vigour in it. No world leader in recent memory has been a more effective a poster boy for hyped-up masculinity than Vladimir Putin who, at age 56, appeared “chest naked” in numerous photographs and while riding a horse, fishing, and clutching a rifle. 
In 2008, a vacation photo of then President-elect Barack Obama snapped in Hawaii made the cover of Washingtonian, a D.C. style magazine, to alert residents of America’s capital city know that “our new neighbor is hot.” Swimsuit shots of Nicolas Sarkozy, Prince Charles, Tony Blair, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have all made media ripples, as have shirtless photos of Prince Harry, which turn out to be the least of his skin-bearing and image-based problems.
All of these seemingly innocuous and above-the-belt images do raise a lot of interesting questions. Is there a correlation to be made between the increased number of pictures we see of young guys flaunting their abs and their loss of power in culture and the workplace? Does the ubiquity of images that objectify men’s bodies suggest that both women and men are more comfortable admitting what their piqued interest and lingering looks might suggest? Do shirtless pictures suggest what writer Katie Roiphe described as “a new narcissism: boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls?”  What happens when the spread of ‘fitspo’ or inspirational images of chiselled athletes, like David Beckham, collides with impressionable teenage boys’ body obsessions and interests in dietary supplements and steroids? Is the popularity of shirtless pictures, in light of the continued censorship of images of women breast-feeding, evidence of still-enshrined double standards? What’s revealed about us when the shirtless photo of lightly-muscled Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg triggers frenzy in the blogosphere or a Google search for ‘Justin Bieber shirtless’ yields over 11 million links?
Clearly, shirtlessness is on people’s minds. The subject drives websites like Running Shirtless, Shirtless Man World, and The Art of Manliness, with its “The Shirtless Males Discussion Group”. The popularity of Magic Mike (2011), a feature film starring ex-stripper Tatum Channing, was based upon that film’s obsessive depiction and delectation of man-candy, even if the script kept characters fretting about their aging and their bodies’ inevitable gravitational slump. Carpe diem, one of Magic Mike’s not-so-subliminal themes, has also driven our deep fascination with photography since the medium’s invention. “In a world where many people feel very insignificant and anonymous and unseen and unimportant,” the cultural critic Stewart Ewen noted, “one of the main ways we have access to becoming important is by becoming an image.” 
Digital imaging makes that goal easier now, by providing guys with the opportunities to enact, appraise, and advertise their masculinity. Inevitably, their pictures communicate as much about current norms (like hairlessness, for example) and fantasies (of the penises left out of sight or that lie beyond an image’s border) as they do about their specific subjects’ personal, pumped-up attributes. Conceived to be assertive and compelling, pictures of men intent upon being seen at their personal best are fated, like the men themselves, to turn nostalgic. As it turns out, even as they do, we’ll keep looking. As studies repeatedly confirm, we are neurologically hard-wired to read bilateral body symmetry as a sign of beauty. That is what attracts our attention to faces and it’s likely that the symmetry of a worked-out chest can exert a similar, primal pull. And if that’s the case, there’s no way to avert our eyes from the highs and lows of human nature and photography, all of which keep us looking and take us to places we’d never imagined we’d go.