For some, it is a source of shame – and a trigger for frequent mirror checks: is my hairline receding? Is there a thin patch on top of my head?
But for the acclaimed photographer Rankin and the conceptual artists Scott Kelly and Ben Polkinghorne, male baldness is something to celebrate. Baldpieces, a series of portraits of men adorned with striking headwear, focuses on masculine beauty and challenges an enduring taboo.
Two-thirds of men begin to lose hair on their heads by the age of 35. By the age of 50, 85% of men will have significantly thinner hair. Kelly and Polkinghorne – both in their early 30s with reasonably full heads of hair – noticed it was a subject that many men were unwilling to discuss openly. It is an issue “can relate to it in some way, shape or form. Balding men, girlfriends of balding men, even sons of balding men sporting full heads of hair”, they said.
Kelly said: “Men do everything possible to hide or fill these gaps. We thought it would be interesting to imagine a world where, rather than hiding or burying it, baldness was promoted and became a thing to be proud of.”
The pair made hundreds of sketches of male pattern baldness before whittling them down to eight shapes. They then collaborated with headpiece designers to create magnificent “crowns to adorn balding crowns”.
With Rankin’s involvement, they put out casting calls for balding men to be photographed. “Because of the stigma, we were amazed there were men willing to come forward,” said Kelly.
Rankin, a globally renowned portrait and fashion photographer whose subjects have included the Queen, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Madonna, said the headpieces were “brilliant in their originality”.
“There is a taboo [around baldness] – we don’t particularly talk to other men about it, apart from taking the mickey,” he said. The Baldpieces project was “trying to create something new, and say it’s OK to be bald. It’s so confronting – yet so unashamedly masculine.”
Issues of ageing were of growing personal interest, said Rankin, 55 – although still with plenty of hair. “I still feel very young, like I’m a kid, but when I was 25 I thought people 30 years older than me were ancient.”
Although he is “not sad” about getting older, he said he had stopped taking self-portraits in the past year because “I don’t like the way I look”. But, he added: “I enjoy the wisdom that comes with being a bit older, and being a little bit more calm.”
Earlier this year, he produced a series of billboard images featuring naked, or nearly naked, older couples for a campaign challenging stereotypes about sexual desire in later years. He also produced a book, Embrace, containing images of withering and dying flowers shot during lockdown.
“I can see myself doing more projects [on ageing]. Confronting mortality is very interesting for photographers because essentially we try to capture a moment in a bubble and then hope it lasts for ever, a time capsule. I’ve always really loved photographing older people, so I think I’ve just got to accept I’m one of them now.”
Baldpieces appears in the current issue of Hunger, the biannual culture and fashion magazine founded by Rankin 10 years ago. Kelly and Polkinghorne also hope to exhibit them. “We want to see how the world reacts. We have high aspirations and ambitions, but I don’t think you’re going to see lots of [men wearing] baldpieces on the streets,” said Polkinghorne.
Kelly, whose father started losing his hair at a young age, said: “I won’t lie to you, I’ve started to notice the early signs of balding. It began to hit me around 29 or 30. The invincibility of youth has started to wear away.”