Born and based in New York City, Michael Harwood has been an exhibiting artist since the mid 1970s. His satirical and semi-pornographic collages, which exploit covert homoeroticism in mass-market magazine ads, were shown in “It’s a Gender Show” at Group Material (New York, 1981). In the 1980s he turned to 35mm photography as a means of recording the visual delights and peculiarities he encountered in the city and in his travels. The multifarious body of color slides he has since produced is the source material for a series of diptychs, which he started making 1995. Also throughout this time, within the fertile confines of his apartment, he began to develop a personal style in his photographs of naked men. His art-making has been influenced principally by two men of the theater, Jerzy Grotowski and Charles Ludlam – strange bedfellows, to be sure. Grotowski’s theory of Poor Theater and his emphasis on the role of physical impulse in the creative act, and Ludlam’s gay gaze and his embrace of the Ridiculous are the touchstones of Michael Harwood’s practice. He found a mentor in the artist Thomas Lanigan Schmidt, and there have been several essential muses, some of whose images grace these images.
You started out as a collage artist yet soon turned to photography. What initiated this shift?
I was in fact making photographs in the late 1960s, prior to my collages. I loved photography, but my ambition was to work in theater as a set designer. In 1970, my camera was stolen from my East Village apartment, and I was broke and didn’t replace it. The collages, which I made from magazine ads and gay porn, happened spontaneously a few years later. They were funny, dirty and political. In 1981 I was dating a hunky guy, who wanted to take photos of me naked in the dunes in Provincetown. He bought a Canon Sure Shot, and after I posed for him, he let me have the camera to take pictures of him, a fateful move. A muse and the camera in my hands revived my interest in making photographs. I soon had my own SLR and now have a body of work which I sometimes find overwhelming.
The sculptures you photograph often resemble the male bodies you shoot. What difference is there for you? And what is it that you find so captivating in statues?
As an art lover, I see these statues as stunning, man-made objects loaded with centuries of (mostly) mysterious cultural baggage. And as a photographer of naked men, I see them as weird surrogate models, silent, fixed in space, and utterly permissive.
You have been exhibiting since the 70s. What changes do you notice in art making and audience over the years?
What I think of first is the digitalization of almost everything and the radical scaling up, i.e., hyper-inflation, of the art object and art world.
Is there anything you have always wanted to photograph and never managed to?
I would love to have made photos of the gay “sex piers” on the Hudson River in the mid 1970s. As I’ve said, I didn’t have a camera in the ’70s, and anyhow, I felt then that bringing one would have violated an assumed code of privacy. Huge, insanely poetic, light punctured spaces, previous sites of intense commercial activity, ten years abandoned and overtaken by Nature, they were reclaimed by the trespassing gay men of New York City for their pleasures. Later on, the piers were appropriated by downtown artists, and for me the spell was broken. By the ’90s, they had either collapsed into the river or were demolished.
For some series you worked entirely with colour and for some in pure black and white. How did you decide what to opt for? Was it a conscious choice?
All the photos on my website were shot on film. For most of my life as an artist there was no digital option. Color film is much less versatile than black and white for indoor lighting, so I generally use black and white film for sessions with models in my apartment or when I shoot in museums. Outdoors I love to use color film, which I still prefer to digital. But when I update my website, I’ll add a section for recent digital work, all color, indoors and out.
Are you working on something at the moment? What would you like to work on?
I’m looking forward to photo sessions with the playful, sexy body-builder I met while he was dancing on the bar at my favorite Chelsea hangout.