Assistant Professor of English
Duane Michals is an American artist, a gay man, and an early pioneer of what the critic A. D. Coleman once termed “the directorial mode” in photography. By directorial, Coleman meant an approach to image making in which “the photographer consciously and intentionally creates events for the express purpose of making images thereof. This may be achieved by intervening in ongoing ‘real’ events or by staging tableaux.”(1) That is, Michals is not concerned with photographic “realism,” capturing things or events in themselves; rather, he arranges the external world into a composition. His work has a cinematic quality, with Michals acting as a film director, often storyboarding images into a narrative sequence. Typically, his photos are accompanied by handwritten captions, which brings the images into focus as intimate, tactile objects.(2)
Beyond cinema, however, Michals’s work is also theatrical in the specific relation it creates with its viewer. His highly artificial images confront the beholder, distancing or interrupting our ability to see them as natural slices of everyday life. They seem to hail the viewer like actors breaking “the fourth wall” of the proscenium stage;(3) they are the photographic remains of a staging in which Michals carefully, graciously posed his subjects. The men who appear in his work seem to perform for us as they once performed for him behind the camera lens. The image becomes theatrical in that its meaning plays out, takes place in the space between the image and the viewer’s body standing (in the gallery) in the director photographer’s former position.(4)
This theatrical quality is apparent in Michals’s Homage to Cavafy (1978), which honors a homosexual author widely considered the greatest modern Greek poet. Constantine Cavafy (1863–1933) lived in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and produced a breathtaking body of lyric poetry that aims, as his most recent translator writes, to hold “the historical and the erotic in a single embrace.”(5) Drawing his subjects from memories of former lovers and from the ancient Hellenistic past, Cavafy’s poetry gently entwines melancholy with arousal, the sensual with the scholarly. Typically, he would draft a poem, set it aside, only to finish it years later, when the remembrance of things past could take a particularly intensive form. His verse pays candid tribute to an experience of desire caught amid the flows of time, as in the early poem “Come Back” (drafted 1904; completed 1912):
Come back often and take hold of me,
beloved feeling come back and take hold of me,
when the memory of the body reawakens,
and old longing once more passes through the blood;
when the lips and skin remember,
and the hands feel like they’re touching once again.
Come back often and take hold of me at night,
when the lips and skin remember …(6)
Cavafy was in his forties when he wrote this poem, but, as with so many of his poems, these amorous lines look back to his twenties. The imaged past reappears in fragments, as if by lambent lightning flash: a dimpled chin, tanned limbs, the relaxed posture of a slumbering body, the curvature of the lips over the teeth, waves of uncombed hair caught in a seaside breeze. Looking back from a great biographical retrospect as if to preserve those the past has already claimed, Cavafy’s Orphic poetry is marked by the nostalgia of late middle age and by the eros of distance.