Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

The poet's eye


Photographer Duane Michals visualizes Cavafy poems

From The Adventures of Constantin Cavafy. Photo: Duane Michals
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Prolific photographer Duane Michals' latest book, The Adventures of Constantin Cavafy (Twin Palms Publishers, $60), visualizes excerpts from the work of the Greek gay poet, with actor Joel Grey playing the role of Cavafy, and a series of gorgeous young men in and out of clothes serving as his muses. As with many of his books and photo essays, Michals gives himself a cameo role as well.

Michals, 75, has frequently explored the journey of life and death, as well as age and the beauty of youth. His work often exemplifies a mirthful, curious, and tragic portrait of intergenerational desire, and mythical transformation in contemporary settings. In Cavafy, these themes come to a deceptively simple perfection, as Michals, like the poet, comes to the twilight of his artistic life. Yet he and his work retain a sense of joy and wonder, perhaps because he learned the art-form without restrictions.

"I never went to photography school," said Michals in a phone conversation from his Manhattan home. "If I had, I would have learned the big rules."

Those broken rules include what Michals has become famous for: telling stories with handwritten text below the images, using images in sequence to tell stories, and in some cases, creating dreamlike montages. Nearly all Michals' prints come with text that furthers the story in each image or series of prints.

"I'm very verbal," said Michals. "I needed to express more than what the camera was saying. I set up stories, a narrative. I had to figure out a way of doing that, which led to going from one photo to another."

Much of Michals' work explores the ephemeral moments of gay romance, with the gaze of the lens contemplating simple moments like a man lighting another's cigarette, or a naked man toweling off.

"I like to explore the world where things are queer," he said. And not just in a sexual way, although some of his work's male nudity evokes a stirring eroticism. There is a strange beauty to Michals' work, as if dreams had been captured on film.

Yet he employs the most basic photographic techniques. "It's extremely simple, but I use the whole vocabulary, in terms of double exposures, of what the camera does. I include my dreams, anxieties, and desires, none of which are visible.

"My version of reality includes what you can't see," he said. "I never trusted the facts. I'm more interested in what something feels like rather than what it looks like."

With more than 20 published books, and dozens of exhibits shown around the world, Michals shows no sign of slowing down. As Cavafy was completed, he's begun work on two more books with different themes.

Bringing famous actors into his work is nothing new. Joel Grey was part of a whimsical detective series that included Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford. His other celebrity portraits of Liza Minnelli, Burt Reynolds, and Joe D'Allessandro capture a warm intimacy.

Michals said that he picks models through people he knows or meets. Some of the male nudes betray a casual comfort, wearing only a hat or a pair of feathered wings.

"My models are people like me," he said. For a book about Walt Whitman, whose work Michals calls "profoundly profound," his muse was a straight friend who later asked him to be the Best Man at his wedding.

Born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Michals studied at the University of Denver and the Parsons School of Design. His first exhibit in New York was a series of portraits he took on a 1958 trip to Moscow, which Michals cites as the pivotal moment when he knew he wanted to be a photographer. In the 1960s, his work was disdained by critics. At his first exhibit, "half the people walked out," he said. Yet he continued to develop his personal self-taught style while doing commercial work for fashion magazines. Even after achieving acclaim for his artistic work, he shot rock bands like The Police.

His topics have ranged from the erotic and dreamlike to quantum physics and a return trip to Pittsburgh, where he took plaintive photos of his family and former home that bear an antique style. One of his next books will include his personal writings, mostly typeset, and not in his handwritten style.

"I love handwriting," said Michals. "I like to buy books that have original letters. I love the intimacy of the hand. It's like listening to someone speaking."

Michals even owns books with copies of Cavafy's poem drafts. "You can see the scrawl and mistakes."

Like the poet to whom he pays homage in his new book, Michals still retains a sense of wonder about life and art. "My work gets more intimate as I get older."

Sometimes the subject of desire depicted in his work changes from men to women. "Homosexuality is just like heterosexuality, except it's different," said Michals, who has been openly gay for decades. "Those instincts are exactly innate, except the genders."

Some of Michals' previous work is also political, with a focus on homophobia, particularly from religion. In one of his more recognizable images, "Salvation," a priest holds a crucifix like a gun against a young man's head. Published in The New York Times in a 1980s series asking artists to show or write in 10 words what they thought about conditions in America, "it was very upsetting for a lot of people," said the photographer.

"My point was, no American has the right to impose his morality on another American. They published it. Then my mom called and said, 'The priest talked about you in his sermon.' [New York archdiocese] Cardinal O�Connor wrote [the Times] a nasty letter." As a result, a later submission of his work was censored by the newspaper.

Michals is no longer surprised by such controversy. "People don't usually react to photographs like that. As long as photographers are polite, they pass. If you're dealing with political issues, it's more shocking. People never believe drawings, even tromp l�oeil. People believe a photograph. So when it contradicts them, it's shocking."

For Michals, the dreamlike elements of his work represent a form of truth. A self-proclaimed atheist and empiricist, Michals said, "The only true knowledge is direct experience. I photograph what I know. Dreams are more intimate, much more authentic."

And despite his atheism, he does consider his photography a form of spiritual quest. "There are certain ideas I come back to, like the journey of the spirit after death. Traditional photographers would shoot a tombstone or a funeral home. I'm trying to visualize what happens when you die.

At 75, his lively curiosity remains spirited as ever. "Old age should be a reward, not a punishment. I must recommend getting older."

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