Michael Young: Seeing Through Desire

© Michael Young ‘Reclining Cowboy⁠, March’ [detail] 2021 from the series ‘Hidden Glances’

I am drawn to the way in which personal history shapes identity, and in my images I strive to create connections by sharing perceptions and emotions.


Desire can run deep in one’s being yet remain on the outer peripheries of consciousness, inchoate until context sets it in relief. That context plays a significant role in the feelings that accompany this newfound self-awareness. In everyday language we may speak of desires as emotions, but more accurately they arise from the bedrock of our being, a wellspring from which emotions subsequently flow. Reaching from so deep within us, desires when manifest can be a source of strength or site of vulnerability depending on the prevailing environment in which they are experienced. Perhaps counterintuitively, desire and fear are more closely entangled than we might imagine. Recent neurophysiological research suggests that they both arise in the same neural pathways of the brain. What shapes the outcome is the nature of the external environment, which can invert the experience of desire to become a kind of dread if the environment is hostile.

The work of the artist Michael Young addresses this interplay of context and desire, and the evolving ways in which desire might find a rapprochement with an initially hostile environment. In ‘Hidden Glances’, the series for which he is currently best known, he layers gay pin-ups from old calendars. In the upper layer, the masculine body emblematic of his desire is excised and, in the process, becomes a window through which to glimpse fragments of a second male physique below. The result remains unsettled, resisting resolution while enticing the eye further into the image. The urge to look, to connect with the object of desire, is all but thwarted by the fear of being seen to be looking. Yet, in the liminal space so created the mood hovers between effacement and flirtation.

In the other two series discussed here – both works in progress – he constructs narratives and juxtapositions that speak to the context in which desire is revealed and rejection feared. Both arise from within the wider relational and generational frame of the family. The one amid the first inklings of puberty, the other in the reconciliation of difference within a household of conservative heteronormative values. In weaving together the fraying threads of memory he avoids tying up the narrative in a neat conclusion. It takes time and patient observation to see the process through and for all to recognise the diverse threads of personal desire that enrich the larger fabric of family life.

Alasdair Foster

© Michael Young ‘I Wonder What He’s Up To’ 2018 from the series ‘His Korean War’


What drew you to photography as a way of exploring ideas?

There’s something really powerful about photography. It is more complex than it appears, deceptively so. But, when it’s done well, one can communicate in an image what it would take many pages of words to convey. And, looking inwards, it has been a way for me to make sense of the world around me and better understand my memories of the past… to understand how I feel and, importantly, why.

[Left] © Michael Young ‘As He Slept He Dreamed of Boys Running Free’ 2019 from the series ‘His Korean War’
[Right] © Michael Young ‘Working and Resting in the Field’ 2019 from the series ‘His Korean War’

How did the Korean War project come about?

It started with a story my grandmother used to tell my siblings and me about our grandfather’s time as a sailor in the Korean War. My memory is now just a fragment: that while he was aboard a ship, another sailor made a sexual pass at him, placing his hand high up on my grandfather’s thigh. The sailor’s advance was rejected by a punch in the face. It was always my grandmother who told this story, and she did so with a sense of pride about my grandfather’s masculinity. My grandfather never told the story himself nor did he ever chime in to add more details.

I was younger than ten when my grandmother used to tell the story, and I remember it raising a lot of emotions and questions for me. At that age, I did not know what a homosexual was but my grandmother’s delight at the way my grandfather had reacted made it obvious that being one was not something to be proud of.

It’s a story that has haunted me ever since. Now that both of my grandparents are no longer alive and my mother’s memory is failing, I have no one to ask about my grandfather’s time in the war. So, I want to either piece the story together in a visual way or perhaps to turn it into my own story about the feelings and emotions it awakened in me.

[Left] © Michael Young ‘Reading on the Ship’s Deck’ 2020 from the series ‘His Korean War’
[Right] © Michael Young ‘Blood Pressure’ 2020 from the series ‘His Korean War’

What is the series called?

The working title is currently ‘His Korean War’. I have left it non-specific because I do not yet know if I am more interested in trying to create a story about my grandfather or about the sailor who made a pass at him: the personal shame I associated with the actions of the former or the erotic possibilities suggested by the latter. Through it I want to explore themes of masculinity and homosexuality, and the construction of memory.

How are the images made?

For the past three years I have been collecting materials from the early 1950s with which to construct a visual narrative: 35mm slides, film negatives, personal snapshots, military yearbooks and bulletins, press photographs, and other items relating to the Korean War.

Because I am working with materials that are now some seventy years old, I want to incorporate older technologies and methodologies so that the work retains a nostalgic, analogue quality. This is still in the experimental stage, and I am exploring a variety of ways to re-interpret the vintage imagery. These can, for example, involve a double exposure made in the camera or the use of a vintage slide projector to create blurry overlays. I am also refining a process in which I rephotograph old slides projected onto a variety of reflective textures.

© Michael Young ‘Out on the Range, January’ 2021 from the series ‘Hidden Glances’

How did ‘Hidden Glances’ begin?

It started as a very personal project. I had been collecting items related to the Korean War from eBay vendors, and had begun to include the kind of muscle magazines that gay men at the time might have looked at. This brought me to a seller in California named David who had a large collection of such publications. After purchasing a bunch of old beefcake magazines from him, he began to throw in other items by way of thanks for my continuing custom. This is how I came across the glossy gay calendars from the 1990s.

For some time I didn’t know what to do with them since they fell outside of the scope of material I was collecting for the Korean War project. However, when Covid-19 hit, I spent time organising all the materials I had collected and came across these calendars. And, since I had fewer calendars than the Korean War materials, working with the calendars felt more manageable; something to take my mind off the pandemic.

Because in lockdown everything at work was online, I had grown tired of staring at a screen and wanted to find a way to be creative that took me away from my computer. Since the majority of the calendars were produced before digital post-production became mainstream, it seemed appropriate to work with them in a more physical, tactile way.

[Left] © Michael Young ‘Towelling Off, May’ 2022 from the series ‘Hidden Glances’
[Right] © Michael Young Untitled (Production Still, 1) 2022 from the series ‘Hidden Glances’

How is the work made?

All the compositions are created using a scalpel. I carefully cut out the face and body of a model, leaving his clothing and the background. This layer is then placed over another image from the calendar depicting a different man. Once I have layered the alignment of images in a way that works, I use artist tape to temporarily keep everything in its place while I re-photograph it. I just use Photoshop to clean any dust marks or ragged edges to the cut layer. But I want the cut edges themselves to remain visible, to make evident the physical construction of the final image.

What ideas and feelings are you exploring this work?

These images are a visualisation of how I felt when I began to realise that I wasn’t straight. I tried to suppress my feelings, to pass as straight. Even when I went to study at Yale, I still spent three years at one of the most liberal colleges in the USA denying who I was. In the images, the negative silhouette of one man becomes a window through which to look at the body of another. For me, it gives the work a surreptitious, voyeuristic quality that is both playful and restrained. I called it ‘Hidden Glances’ in memory of the way I wanted to look at other guys while keeping myself hidden in the shadows – seeing but not being seen to look.

[Left] © Michael Young ‘Reclining Cowboy⁠, March’ 2021 from the series ‘Hidden Glances’
[Right] © Michael Young ‘Flannel Pools, October’ 2022 from the series ‘Hidden Glances’

There is something of the flirtatious about these images, the idea that eroticism is as much about what is withheld as what is offered.

That’s exactly what I’m going for with this body of work. During my coming out process there was this internal restraint that drove me to continue to pretend that I was straight, yet at the same time I couldn’t resist the urge to look at other guys in ways that I knew satisfied my true feelings. I remember my first trips to college parties where I knew there would be other gay guys and how exciting and scary it would be to make eye contact with them across the room. I’m really glad that you see that tension and energy within the work.

Was it important that these images originated in calendars, the markers of time passing?

Memory and the passage of time are both themes that drive a lot of the projects that I am working on. When I think about my teenage years, I sometimes get angry that I wasn’t able to have the same high-school experience that my straight friends had. They were free to talk about their crushes, to date and experiment. So, using calendars as my source materials is a way to re-connect with (and perhaps reconcile) what I lost, month by month, to a world that was then rather repressive towards gay people.

I also enjoy working with the physical material of a calendar that someone else has owned and handled – that had another life – before it came into my hands. There is a history and, when one cuts an image, it is irreversible. It takes care and respect to get it right.

The work itself is also evolving. In the earlier works all traces of the model in the upper layer are removed while the figure in the lower layer is wholly contained within that silhouette. In the latest images, I am beginning to deconstruct the silhouettes retaining some parts of the body in the upper image and allowing parts of the figure below to come out into the open to create a more complex and intimate relationship between the two men depicted.

[Left] © Michael Young ‘Give Me Your Hand, January’ 2022 from the series ‘Hidden Glances’
[Right] © Michael Young ‘Leg Up, April’ 2022 from the series ‘Hidden Glances’

Although you have spoken about the men in these pictorial calendars as representing a kind of erotised heterosexuality, they seem rather to represent notions of a kind of hyper-masculinity. Were they emblematic of what you desired to be or what you desired to have?

When I think back to my youth, I was not a risk taker in the sense that I never purchased porn and hid it under my mattress. The realisation that I was drawn to men rather than women came while looking at the underwear section in department-store catalogues. It wasn’t until my family bought a computer with dial-up internet access that I discovered the chatrooms that were popular on AOL. Guys I met in M4M chatrooms would email me provocative images, which I’d then download. I remember the excitement I felt as each new image slowly revealed itself… but I would only look at them for a few seconds because I was afraid that my parents would see what I was up to.

So to answer your question, I would have to say that these images of naked men helped confirm what I desired to have, because even if I were to open a photo of a heterosexual couple engaged in the act, I was always drawn exclusively to the man.

What kind of response have you had to your work?

I never imagined that this work would go public. So, for it to be invited into exhibitions, publications and benefit auctions has been a surprise and honour. I am excited that it speaks to others, and I hope that it will continue to do so as more people get to know it.

One of the sweetest moments was when I received a DM from a queer youth who had seen my work during the ‘New Photography III’ exhibition at the Art Academy Museum [Easton, Maryland]. Their message about how my work resonated and inspired them was so pure and raw that I return to the message whenever I start to second guess myself and what I’m doing as an artist.

What is the most surprising response you have had to ‘Hidden Glances’?

My mom’s when she told me that it was so great that I was making gay-pride art.

[Left] © Michael Young ‘Erik’s Last Trip to His Grandmother’s Home’ 2016 from the series ‘After the Land Has Lain Fallow’
[Right] © Michael Young ‘Nauti Nights’ 2017 from the series ‘After the Land Has Lain Fallow’

Tell me about ‘After the Land Has Lain Fallow’.

I began this project some ten years ago when my partner Erik and I made our first trip together to his parents’ home in rural western Kentucky. This was not only my first trip to meet Erik’s parents, but also the first time that his father, a coal miner, farmer, and Southern Baptist deacon, agreed to Erik’s request to share a bed with me under his father’s roof.

I grew up on the outskirts of New York City, unused to rural life, and this project has been a way for me to get to know my partner better and understand where he’s from. For Erik’s family, daily life revolves around hard work, family, and religion. Heterocentric gender roles are defined and reinforced early in life at home and in church. Being different is seen as a challenge to long-held conservative beliefs.

Why do you call this body of work ‘After the Land Has Lain Fallow’?

When Erik came out to his parents in his late twenties, his father cut off almost all communication with him for nearly two years. Like farmland that must lie fallow for a season or two to renew itself, time has healed Erik’s relationship with his father. Nevertheless, I still sense traces of a son pining for his father’s unconditional love and acceptance. It remains a working title. This is a long-term project, nuanced and intimately connected to us both, but also exploring more universal themes of family relationships, love and loss, personal identity, gender norms, the longing to be accepted… I am trying to remain open to how it may evolve.

[Left] Michael Young ‘Pamela, Former Nurse’ 2015 from the series ‘After the Land Has Lain Fallow’
[Right] © Michael Young ‘Shooting Practice on David’s Farm’ 2012 from the series ‘After the Land Has Lain Fallow’

What is your modus operandi?

I make new photographs whenever Erik and I visit his parents’ home. This used to happen a couple of times a year but, given travel restrictions around Covid, our visit this summer was the first time that we’d been back in Greenville, Kentucky since 2019. On that trip my goal was to make images that were focused on Erik’s relationship with his parents in and around their home.

What’s really great about Erik’s family is that they’re quite natural in front of the camera. They don’t pay much attention when I am taking photographs, which helps me capture their everyday lives in a natural way. I always show them my images, and no one has ever asked me not to use a photo of them.

How has the process of making ‘Hidden Glances’ influenced the development of the other two projects we are discussing here?

It has made me think more about my role as photographer and to realise that however objective I may try to be, my voice and vision are always going to be a part of the equation.

In making these three series, what is it that photography is teaching you?

All three projects are challenging for me. The creative process requires me to take risks, to be vulnerable. It’s made me look more closely at myself and the world around me. And through it I am learning patience both with the process and myself.

© Michael Young Untitled (Production Still, 2) 2022 from the series ‘Hidden Glances’

Biographical Notes

Michael Young was born in Bronxville, New York, in 1979. He has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish language and literature from Yale University (2001), and a master’s degree in education from New York University (2003). His work has featured in more than twenty group and solo exhibitions across the USA and in Australia, France, Norway, and Switzerland. In 2021 he was named in Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50 photo-artists. In 2022 he was selected for the Critic’s Choice Top Ten on LensCulture, and awarded a first prize in the New York Center for Photographic Art’s competition, The Human Body. His work has been published widely in art magazines and journals in North America and Europe. Michael Young lives and works in Scarsdale, New York.

Photo: © Erik Groves

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.