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Whitman's sampler.

For much of photographer Duane Michals's formidable career, he's made visual poems--compelling, sometimes humorous dreamlike narratives told in pictures and handscrawled words. His almost cinematic works--frequently starring flesh-baring well-formed men--enact moments of loss, desire, loneliness, and hope. The 64-year-old openly gay New York artist has been refining his image-and-text hybrids since the early 1970s, making him something of an art world pioneer. Up's exhibited his work in galleries and museums internationally, and he continues to teach photography at New York's School of Visual Arts. Because Michals's crisp black-and-white images are often arranged sequentially and include written material, they perhaps work best in book form.

Michals's latest book the sumptuous Salute, Walt Whitman, his fourth project for the tony publishing house Twin Palms, is his most literary volume to date. It finds Michals singing the praises of Whitman, that great granddaddy of gay art. It sounds like a perfect union of concerns and sensibilities as Michals, like the poet, channels his gay vision into more universal realms of nature and romantic humanism. Michals has long admitted his interest in Whitman, and in the book's frontispiece he even pens a little poem describing his affinity for the 19th-century wordsmith: "I sing the songs Walt Whitman sang,/ They ring around my mind; / I recognize his cosmic slang, / I am Walt Whitman's kind."

The photographer salutes the literary master by composing interpretive, illustrative pictures to accompany a generous selection of Whitman's own writing--and some of the artist's. For this earthy photographic homage, Michals cast a wholesome "local kid" who lives near his upstate New York farm to embody the poet's spirit of brotherly love. Posed amid bucolic New England landscapes, he represents an innocent man in harmony with nature and his country. According to the artist, this perpetually shirtless guy is the kind of person about whom Whitman would have written. Michals even poses the lad with a white-whiskered Whitman impersonator, who leads the young man into the woods, where they station themselves on a log, seemingly engaged in a poetry tutorial.

Such pictures further the artist's interest in depicting "the legitimacy of affection between men." It's an ambition that has its erotic elements, but Michals deals more in subdued sensuality than the kind of formalized sexual forthrightness of Robert Mapplethorpe's gay images. In the book Michals shows us his reclining shirtless model with a sprig of lilacs clutched between his lips. "Young men dream in the garden of the dead, with flowers growing from their heads," Michals writes wistfully above the image in his trademark scrawl. Like many images here, the shot reveals Michals's appreciation of the male physique. In one series his model peels down to his Speedo for a Thomas Eakins-style swimminghole dip. Later in the book he's shown splashing about revealingly, like a male siren luring men to act on their natural instincts.

Although the book does not find the artist at his peak, some of the single-frame images generate affecting visual poetry. There are some wonderful pictures juxtaposing human flesh with nature and Whitman's words. The well-composed cover shot shows the young man's arm holding aloft a vintage photograph of the stately, bearded Whitman, further affirming the notion of the poet as a gay ancestor. Michals also superimposes the title page of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass on a shot of the bare-chested lad holding two clumps of grass. The fetching, almost iconic mixture of text and torso helps cast Michals as a highbrow version of Whitmanesque fashion photographer Bruce Weber. It's an appealing combination indeed.
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Title Annotation:presentation of Duane Michal's latest book which is inspired by poet Walt Whitman
Author:Helfand, Glen
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Mar 4, 1997
Words:589
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