Collection Explore
Essay
Joseph Cermatori
on Touching Feeling with C.P. Cavafy and Duane Michals

Joseph Cermatori
Assistant Professor of English
Skidmore College

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.

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Duane Michals (born McKeesport, Pennsylvania, 1932)
untitled [from Homage to Cavafy], 1978
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2015.1.474.10
Michals created his Homage to Cavafy around this same time of life (and under different historical circumstances, amid the gay sexual euphoria of the post-Stonewall 1970s). It is a poetic sequence of ten images, under each of which appears a caption by Michals in Cavafy’s honor, and often in his “style.” Most of the ten photographs appear to have been shot in an anonymous New York apartment. One features two identical young men in their midtwenties, slender and bare-chested, facing the camera/spectator directly, standing with arms linked and hands folded across their buttoned jeans. Behind them, there appears a hallway, and to their left, a torch lamp and the face of a piano, with a metronome and closed score. The two youths stare enigmatically—perhaps desirously—at the viewer. There is a mystery here. The caption reads: “There was something between them which they had always sensed, but it would remain unspoken.”
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Duane Michals (born McKeesport, Pennsylvania, 1932)
untitled [from Homage to Cavafy], 1978
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2015.1.474.7
Other images bring together the magic briefness of the fleeting moment—an idea so plangent in Cavafy’s work, which photography as a medium is uncannily able to expose—with the theatrical dynamics of voyeurism and exhibitionism. A nude man stands against a weirdly illuminated wallpaper backdrop, pulling his shirt over his shoulders in a blur of motion, obscuring his face. (Caption: “He was unaware that at the exact moment that he removed his undershirt, his body had grown to its perfection. With the next breath, the moment had passed.”) Another man poses, likewise caught in the blur of memory, leaning against a wall, like the statue of some Greek hero. His attitude is a pure come-on to the viewer. Conscious of being viewed from behind, he faces his body away from us, but tilts his head toward us, returning our gaze over his right shoulder. (“After his shower, he dried himself very carefully. And although he would never admit it, it had all been for my benefit.”)
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Duane Michals (born McKeesport, Pennsylvania, 1932)
untitled [from Homage to Cavafy], 1978
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2015.1.474.6
Still others seem almost an Homage to Caravaggio, full of chiaroscuro effects, misdirected gazes, inscrutable contexts, dramatic postures. Two shirtless men play cards in a darkened room near the stark light of what seems a basement window: “One is cheating.” Amid piles of detritus, an older man reads the palm of a younger one, both silhouetted against a glowing windowpane. The palm reader knows, “There would be a terrible tragedy.” In each photo, a miniature drama transpires before the viewer’s eyes. We are somewhere between theater and photography, performance and poetry, text and image, cruising the spaces between genres and mediums. A self-sufficient meaning does not reside in any of these images—that much is clear because the captions are needed as supplements. Deciphering the allegorical clues Michals has left behind, one feels oneself viewing in an “indeterminate, open-ended” relation to the theatrical object of one’s gaze.(7)
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Duane Michals (born McKeesport, Pennsylvania, 1932)
untitled [from Homage to Cavafy], 1978
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2015.1.474.9

In my favorite image in the series, a nude young man sits beside the bed of an older one, who is covered in white sheets and appears to be sleeping peacefully. The angelic youth drapes his left arm gently over his head, exposing his armpit and side. His right hand reaches out toward the reclining older figure. It is a gesture of simplicity and elegance, a sort of classical sprezzatura, and an emblem of desire and mourning. A large window at right illuminates the scene. Its brightness isolates and segments the young man’s extended forearm, the shape of his reaching hand as delicate as the stalk of an Easter lily, creating a sharp play of light and dark against the white wall behind. The boy’s fingers longingly approach the older man’s body: age, remembrance, and the smallest blank space separate them. Caption: “The son returned home in the afternoon, but he was too late. The father had died in the morning.”

In Cavafy’s work, mourning and desire mingle within the theater of memory, an older man reaching out to hold the bodies of his ghostly lovers, longing for the embrace of their arms. In Michals’s Homage, a younger artist similarly reaches to enfold an older predecessor—a father he never knew, a youth he never loved, another self he never met. In the spaces between, their lives remain distanced, but their times touch.

  1. A. D. Coleman, “The Directorial Mode: Notes Toward a Definition” (1976), in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988), 484.
  2. Throughout this essay, my emphasis on the tactile quality of these works is largely indebted to the writings of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, notably Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
  3. Here, I borrow and summarize Michael Fried’s well-known definition of theatricality in the visual arts. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” (1967), in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 116–47. Michals’s inclination toward theatricality is even more pronounced in his recent book The Adventures of Constantine Cavafy (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2007), which stages scenes from Cavafy’s poetry and life with the Broadway actor Joel Grey in the role of the aging Greek poet.
  4. Fried, describing Robert Morris’s sculptures and the theatricality of what he calls “literalist” art more broadly, writes: “Whereas in previous art ‘what is to be had from the work is located strictly within [it],’ the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation—one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder. [ … ] including, it seems, the beholder’s body.” “Art and Objecthood,” 135–37.
  5. Daniel Mendelsohn, introduction to C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, trans. Daniel Mendelsohn (New York: Knopf, 2009), xxxiii.
  6. Cavafy, Collected Poems, 47.
  7. Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” 128.
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Duane Michals (born McKeesport, Pennsylvania, 1932)
untitled [from Homage to Cavafy], 1978
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2015.1.474.4

Cite this page

Cermatori, Joseph. “Joseph Cermatori on Touching Feeling with C.P. Cavafy and Duane Michals.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/251-joseph-cermatori. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 3 (2019).

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Duane Michals
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