Shades of Love
My life is spent in the ebb and flow of pleasure, in erotic fantasies—sometimes realized.
My work leans toward thought.
Perhaps rightly so.
Then my work is like the amphora I mentioned. It allows for different interpretations.
And my love life has its own manifestation—obscure only to the ignorant. Expressed more broadly, it may not have been enough of an artistic field for me to stay, to be enough for me.
I work like the ancients. They wrote history, they created philosophy, dramas of a mythological tragic nature—sensual—so many of them—just like me.—C.P. CAVAFY
It is no surprise that Cavafy’s poetry would inspire a fellow Greek Greek photographer Dimitris Yeros. Cafavy’s life is rich in material: he was a gay poet at the turn of the 19th century who bucked norms and openly embraced his sexuality. Well-read and well travelled, he was both an aristocrat and polymath; he lived in Alexandria, England, Constantinople, and France, but spent the majority of his life in Alexandria. His poetry, however, was written in Greek; Yeros commissioned a new translation by David Connolly especially for this project. (Playwright Edward Albee writes the forward, and photography critic John Wood the introduction.) An amalgam of visual arts and literature that is both handsome and invitingly naughty, Shades of Love has attracted the attention of both poetry and photography lovers worldwide.
Yeros transforms this project into a particularly enlivening journey by pairing Cavafy’s poems with portraits of the world’s top men of arts and letters (with one Greek-American actress—Olympia Dukakis—as the exception.) Gore Vidal, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, David Leddick, Duane Michals, Jeff Koons, Naguib Mahfouz, Jean Baudrillard, and many more fill the pages of the book. This addition makes Shades of Love far more than just a coupling of poetry and photography: Yeros is taking the particular—one man’s poems—and highlighting their universal reach by bringing in new personalities to embody them. Shades of Love is a visual testament to these words that Cavafy wrote a hundred years ago: “I work like the ancients. They wrote history, they created philosophy, dramas of a mythological tragic nature—sensual—so many of them—just like me.” Just as Cavafy is like the ancients, so are Yeros and the colleagues he photographs.
But these famous men do not occupy the photos alone. They are flanked by hunky, naked youth—male models—who serve as a fascinating foil to the dignified older men in the photos. Yeros transforms what could have been a straight up portrait into visual dialogues about relationship and all of the complexities they can contain—yearning, nostalgia, lust, envy, love, etc—exactly what Cafavy explores through poetry.
Yeros is friends with most of the famous men he photographs, which partially explains the intimacy, humour and warmth his images possess—in some of them, you feel like you are getting an inside glimpse into the creative private world of close friends. The already-established relationship translates to a surprising ease in the images.
Shades of Love emphasizes Cavafy’s unusual outspokenness as a gay man. During the time he was writing, homosexuality was emphatically “thought shameful even to mention.” Which is another reason why Cavafy’s poetry is so unusual—he was speaking out in much bolder terms about his sexuality than any of his contemporaries, including Walt Whitman.
Shades of Love feels like a journey not only into Cavafy’s poetry, but also into the richness of Yeros’ world. In the afterward of the book, Yeros writes amusing anecdotes from the often complicated and bold photo shoots that went into its making. He tells how William Weslow, naked, would repeatedly interrupt the photo shoot to chase away the pigeons from his veranda, furiously waving his arms. And how Clive Barker refused to be shot naked because he didn’t want his penis to look smaller next to that of his partner. The very tales behind these images contain all of the drama, vanity, warmth and allure of a really good poem.
But what about the beefcakes? What role do they play other than eye candy? Actually, given the tone of Cavafy’s poetry—that is probably the exact role they are supposed to play. So many of Cavafy’s poems focus on youthful beauty, placing their gaze on those hotties of the firm round buttocks and sculpted pecs, evocations of the Greek Ideal. In one photo, a young man stands amidst crumbling antiquities. His bottom faces us, as perfectly shaped as a marble statue of Eros. Yeros (whose name, I must note, is simply Eros with a Y) is deliberately playing with Greece’s history as centre of both the ideal human form and gay love since antiquity.
Cavafy’s poems drip with nostalgia and sexual longing. Many possess the voice of an older man whose memories of all consuming passion both feed and haunt him. Yeros’ images visually reinforce this lust for youth and beauty.
TEXT BY CLAYTON MAXWELL
image: Duane Michals and Douglas, New York, 2001,©Dimitris Yeros