Friday, 29 January 2021

Remembering Michael Culhane

'Our sacred bodies 1' Models: myself and Mike Cooney

 It's bad enough when a friend dies, but when you only find out a year later it's even more devastating. Those things one does, like sending condolences to family and partners, sending flowers, maybe attend, if only in thought, the funeral, are suddenly redundant. You keep on asking yourself why you were not told earlier. You may even have attempted to contact the deceased, without knowing of course, of their departure, and on not receiving a reply, you may have wondered whether they had suddenly taken umbrage and maybe felt put out...

I am saying all this because this is exactly what happened to me. Michael Culhane aka Solus, a wonderful friend and collaborator, a talented photographer with whom I worked for a period of, altogether,  three and half years, died on 19.01.20  but I only found out yesterday, 28.01.2021, via Messenger. Mike Cooney, a former model and dancer now turned fashion designer, who knew Michael and with whom I did a couple of shoots for Michael, told me in a message he had only just found out too.  Earlier we had both wondered why Michael never got back to us, whenever we attempted to contact him. There was our answer: Michael was no more.

I met Michael via the online creative community DeviantArt, of which I was - still am, loosely - a member, in 2009. I was doing a lot of artistic nude modelling at the time, it was an extension of my life modelling. Micheal liked my look and invited me to do a shoot in Dublin, where he lived. He was not a professional photographer, in the sense that he did not make a living out of it, but he had trained to a very high standard, having been a photographer's assistant and pursued photography as a serious hobby, serious enough to invest in good equipment, hire models, hire studios. 

I looked at his portfolio, found it rather beautiful and agreed to shoot with him. So off I went, my first time in Dublin actually.  We shot indoors and also outdoors in a derelict building - I could not tell you where it was, we drove out of Dublin.  When we did not shoot, Michael took me round sightseeing. It always rains in Dublin...On the day I had to get back to London, Michael had work to do and I went off on my own to admire Trinity College. 

Trinity College Dublin  Library , Image via sivribiber

We then agreed to work together again, this time with another female model (whom I cannot name as she has now given up modelling due to pressure from her partner) and the male model and dancer, Mike.   For a third shoot Michael , who by then had become a friend, suggested Mike and I should do a love inspired shoot, which ended up being called 'Our sacred bodies'.  It was an interesting concept and I relied on Mike's experience as a dancer, he basically choreographed it, it was shot without breaks, we were continuously moving and changing poses, Michael shot whenever he saw something that caught his eye. It lasted several hours. At the time Michael had a young assistant, Odile, who then ended up being his model for a few years.  I was keen on taking self-portraits and Michael lent me his medium format Bronica which he no longer used (I no longer have it, but that's another story). 

My 'self-portrait' at The Sketch Club, Chelsea

Michael became interested in fetish photography but that genre did not suit me at all, so we did not work together for quite a few years. He went to Thailand then he went to Saudi Arabia (he was still holding down a rather high powered exec job) and when his contract ended, somewhat abruptly, he came to London, where his company's head office was. We got together and did another shoot at The Sketch Club, in Chelsea. He was in London for nearly a week then he left. That was the last time I saw him, it must have been 2014. He told me he was not in great health and would be back in the autumn for check-ups but did not elaborate. 

I then found out he was somewhere in Scotland, but he never replied to any message I sent him and I gave up contacting him. 

I remember the week we spent together in London with great pleasure. It was late spring. With his help I took some self-portraits with the Bronica - he helped me to set everything up and advised on aperture etc. Basically, he composed the pictures  I just pressed the button (with a remote).  So, in fact, they are his pictures, but he was too much of a gentleman to take credit and for a long time I believed I was a photographer, till I realised I did not have the know-how nor was I diligent enough to acquire the technique. 

We strolled around London, ate fish and chips, generally had fun, just like we did when he invited me to shoot in Dublin. 

I have a few pictures, in digital form, taken by Michael. Last night I put them all together in a folder and looked at them very carefully. If I am not mistaken, one of them was exhibited in the US and got a mention but I forget which one.

The Three Graces (detail), sculpture, Antonio Canova, 1814 – 17, Italy. Museum no. A.4-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I put up one on my Instagram feed, and a couple of them are in the 'stories', soon to be archived.  Michael has gone, but I will never forget him. A tall man, with an intelligent face and a great smile, we shared a love for Kandinsky and an interest in psychoanalysis.  When he was in London he wanted to see 'The Three Graces' by Canova, which he loved, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but it was not on display - it has not gone back, last time I checked in October this year it was not there, I believe it is always on some loan, somewhere in the world or maybe kept away from the public.

It was an honour to meet you, Michael, and a sheer delight to be your model.

(Michael's work can still be seen on DeviantArt, no one has closed that account yet. A lot of his work is an exploration of fetish and erotic imagery but there are also some wonderful landscapes. His website is no longer accessible)

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Friendship part 2


Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits (2011)

Having started my discussion about friendship, I now wish to add to it, hence this part 2. I will probably also write a part 3, in which I will discuss social media friends, as these are becoming the new normal, due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

In part 1 I talked about friendship as discussed by Plato and Aristotle. I mentioned how for ancient Greeks friendship was something that involved men alone, women being so marginal, especially in Athenian society, and also how their concept of friendship encompassed an erotic dimension, as erotic friendships between adult men and young boys were acceptable, even though adult men would also  have wives and children. Some such friendships were true passions - how can one regulate a human relationship? - but they were usually regarded as friendships with a sexual connotation.

In our contemporary world, this kind of friendship would be inadmissible, as it would be regarded as paedophilia. Not only that. Same-sex relationships between men (and women) are acceptable provided all the people involved are over the age of consent, but they are not regarded as friendships,  they are viewed as full-blown intimate love relationships. Somehow, the concept of a friendship with an erotic dimension is generally frowned upon. 

Achilles and Patroclus, mythical loving friends 

The phenomenon of 'friends with benefits'- named after the 2011 movie with Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake -  is regarded as somewhat 'unnatural'. We tend to differentiate clearly between love and friendship. We also tend to worship Romantic Love (in capitals, RL for short). Thus having sex with a friend is almost unacceptable or regarded as a poor choice. Yet sex with no love exists in abundance, it's even commercially available. Such are the contradictions of our society. Friendship is based on affection, but,  we are told, love in the context of a friendship is absolutelky non-sexual. 

This is a relatively controversial subject and ultimately there is no right or wrong view. I can only venture a personal opinion here. I am not fully convinced about the existence of RL, in my own experience, it has revealed itself to be more often than not rather chimaeric. But friendship is something that I have always felt as being very real. Obviously, not all my friendships with men do or have involved a sexual connection. Still, some have, and I have to say that without being overloaded with expectations of RL,  they were very genuine connections. Maybe I am in the minority believing that love is essentially a deep friendship.

I remember reading a while ago a  story about a now-married couple who were friends for 12 years before they decided to get together. They met at Uni, lived together as flatmates, had other relationships,. Still, their friendship was solid, and they eventually opted to have a go at conventional coupledom, as they wanted a family and viewed that as a continuation of their friendship. They are still best friends, acknowledging that being a couple works for them precisely because their solid friendship sustains the endeavour.

There are many books and articles which try to make sense of love and friendship. Many, though distinguishing between the two, also recommend that intimate relationships should be based on friendships as constitutive of love, rather than infatuation, which seems to be the basis of romantic, passionate love. In hindsight, I can say that my own infatuations never gave way to friendship. A couple of former lovers are still my best friends and that was essentially because we started off as friends.

In one of the most defining movies of the 20th century, Saturday Night Fever, the closing scenes are about invoking friendship as the basis of a meaningful relationship between a man and a woman. 

I love SNF not because of the glitter of disco music and the great dancing it displays, not because of John Travolta on whom I had a proper star crush, not even because it is an intelligent movie that  deals with significant issues, and is quite disturbing in its portrayal of violence towards women and life at the margins of society, exemplified by underclass Brooklyn youth.

Tony and Stephanie promise to be friends. Screenshot from Saturday Night Fever

I love it precisely because of those closing scenes. Stephanie asks a repentant Tony, who has fled Brooklyn for Manhattan, staying up all night, shaken by his friend's involuntary suicide and who, the night before, had tried to have sex with her without her consent, whether he can believe in friendship between a girl and a boy. Tony replies he can try, he will try. Then there is a close up on them holding each other's hand, and their embrace which is telling of so many possibilities. Yes, they might become a couple but their relationship is going to be based on the promise of friendship.  It is a powerful and positive message, a glimmer of hope for better human relationships, in a movie that remains essentially very dark in the sexism, homophobia and racism it portrays. 

As I said, there is room here for different views. Should you wish to add your own please leave a comment. 


Monday, 11 January 2021

Friendship Part 1


While rummaging among old papers I chanced on a battered typewritten piece, probably belonging to my father (I recognised his handwriting in the corrections that were added to the text). It was a discourse on friendship which he might have copied, in translation, for reasons known to him alone, from one of the ancient philosophers who wrote on friendship. I tried to make out who it could have been, but it was hard, there was no frame of reference. There was a passage that struck me, in which the author claimed that no friendship was possible between a man and a woman because friendship is based on a physiological affinity and among people of different sex the physiological element gives rise to fusions or clashes which are typical of love. If you recognise the argument, please let me know. 

My view is that only an ancient philosopher would have written that,  for friendship in the ancient world was something that pertained to men and men alone. Also 'physiological affinities' strikes me as being connected to the theory of body humors, which is associated with Hippocrates.

As I said, I could not identify the source but this reflection on friendship sent me straight to the great writings on friendship by Plato and Aristotle. Let's deal immediately with the elephant in the room: in the ancient world, women had virtually no status, thus these discussions of friendship are about men. This, however, does not mean that we should dismiss the writings of these philosophers, for indeed there is much we can derive by mining the ancients and applying their thinking to our contemporary world, with due changes. 

Friendship is a slippery concept in the day and age of social media friends, who could not be further from the φιλοι of the time of Plato and Aristotle.  Friendship ( or φιλια)  is discussed by Plato in the Lysis .  Friendship and love have much in common, says Plato, but then in the dialogue Socrates (Plato often discusses his ideas using Socrates as his main character and narrator) raises the fiollowing points:

Friendship occurs between people who are similar, interpreted by Socrates as friendship between good men.
Friendship may arise  between men who are dissimilar.
Friendship arises between men who are neither good nor bad and good men.
Friendship arises between those who are related (οἰκεῖοι "not kindred") by the nature of their souls.

The Lysis  is an early Platonic dialogue and much of what is put forward will then be elaborated further in the Symposium.  Nevertheless the Lysis is important in suggesting that desire, in itself neither good nor evil, is the primary cause of friendship, and  that desire may only occur  when there is 'congeniality'.

Aristotle, on the other hand, distinguishes between  genuine friendships and friendships based on mutual usefulness, and on  pleasure. Friendship based on pleasure or usefulness has a  limited shelf life whereas genuine friendship is long lasting. Friendship  takes place between good men: ‘each alike wish good for the other qua good, and they are good in themselves...and it is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality’ (Aristotle 1976, The Nicomachen Ethics: 263).

These theorizations of friendship have provided the blueprint for further discussion and conceptualizations, down to  our days. For us today, friendship remains an individual rather than civic tie - a dimension that was explored by Aristotle.  But as Doyle and Smith write, quoting Allan, "through friendship we gain practical and emotional support, and an important contribution to our personal identities. Friendship also helps us to integrate us into the public realm and acts as a resource for managing some of the mundane and exceptional events that confront us in our lives"

We all need friends, genuine friends. Friendship needs to be cultivated, it can die if neglected, like a beautiful plant it needs tending to. Love is always part of friendship, a disinterested kind of love and it is often the case that couple relationships begin as friendships and then change into love. 
Friends are precious, let's not forget that.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Hello 2021

It's been a very tough 2020 but the new year does not seem to begin in the most exciting way. Forget about Brexit, which to me was, and is, very sad, we are still in the grips of Covid19 and London is in tier 4. No galleries and no museums to visit, socialising is restricted and so on and so forth. 
The only thing that one can do is walk and I intend doing as much walking as possible, as the days, very slowly, rather imperceptibly, get longer. There are wonderful walks one can go on around London, all you need is a pair of comfy shoes and the will to go. For example, there is the Londinium walk, along the ancient Roman walls. My son told me that once, years ago, when he was still at uni, he accidentally found himself on it while trying to get home at some ungodly hour, two or three am, when the only transportation available was infrequent night busses. It was weird, he said, I did not know where I was, then I googled it and there I was, walking behind the  Barbican and enjoying the view.
I would not go that late (or early, depending on your POV) certainly not on my own, but I might get up at 6 am to do it, let's see. It is definitely on my check list.

Santiago de Compostela's Cathedral

You could walk from North London, where I live, to Richmond, but clearly you need time (5 hours minimum), provisions and stamina . It is good training for those who want to go on walking tours or do the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage (many people do not do it as a pilgrimage, they just go on it for the sheer joy of walking. Along the way there are special hotels and hostels to spend the night, low-cost or entirely free, but only for those who are doing the walk and have been certified as bona fide pilgrims).
So this is my New Year's resolution: walk. Other than that, I am keeping it all small, living day by day, focussing on the present, rather than make grandiose plans. 
I try not to think of all the things I miss. Let's be positive: 2021 marks a new beginning. 
Bye for now!

Update 15/01/21: such walks are not permitted as per the current rules, so I shall have to wait for better times!