Monday, September 13, 2010

Duane Michals

Duane Michals
Introduction by Renaud Camus
Pantheon Books, New York
Centre National de la Photographie, Paris
144 pp., 147 illustrations, 5x7½"

There aren’t many photographers capable of dealing with the topic of sex in interesting ways, let alone those whose interest in sex doesn’t come to overwhelm other subject matter explored by the artist. Duane Michals' exploratory sequences and nudes from the 1970s and early 1980s considered ideas such as narrative, mortality, and desire without pandering to either the fine-art photo-establishment or prurient interests. Michals' best-known work straddles the line between an artist exploring new ideas while simultaneously gently massaging our notion of sex in photography.

"Duane Michals," a slim, abused paperback originally published in France in 1983 originally priced at $7.95. You may have seen these little Pantheon Photo Library books in your local used bookstore. It seems as if the volume on Man Ray pops up in every R-section of photography in used bookstores, but more exclusively this was the only Michals book from the series that I have seen, and it was priced perfectly as a reference and teaching tool for a mere $4.00 at Third Place Books in Seattle in 2005. The cover alone is a fine portrait worth the price of admission as Andy Warhol is seen with both hands palms inward, covering his face with long, slender fingers that parallel vertical slats of life on the wall behind him. The light coming through the windows tenderly opens up a space confined by dark shadow on the right side of the frame. We see only the top of Warhol's hair, a touch of his neck, and the fabric of a white dress shirt, pulled taut at the shoulders emphasizing the motion of arms pulled together to cover chest and head. From 1958, the image hints at Warhol's amorphous identity, well before his identity as an art provocateur had been solidified. Maybe then he was still just Andy, shy and uncomfortable with a camera focused on him.

Having only known Michals' best-known works: Paradise Regained, Things are Queer, and Death Comes to the Old Lady, this volume proved to be a great, intimate showcase for that work but also lesser-known singular images such as The Illuminated Man (1969), Nude Denuded (1983) amongst other portraits of the famous and the obscure.

It was refreshing to find that Michals could create strong, singular images that are typically the hallmark of our most famous image-makers. In the Illuminated Man another white-shirted figure is facing the frame, but no face or shoulders are visible, only the bright negative outline of the man is shown, as if his upper body is releasing light towards us, the viewer. The light is in strong contrast to the receding background of a brick-made tunnel, whose layers of new and old bricks add texture to the blown-out form of the man. We see suggestions of ear and hair, but otherwise it seems like the glow originates not from a human, but from some kind of metaphysical force. This brightness attracts and deflects our gaze. The light fades into the black of the tunnel. The more we look, the more apparent it becomes that there is nothing to see but a void reflecting absence upon us. Perhaps it is not an image replete with meaning but it is striking.

Initially my impressions of Michals were unfavorable, thinking him a photographic simpleton whose use of sequencing was more arty than a LIFE magazine spread and remarkably uncomplicated in comparison to the dynamics of your average frame-to-frame comic book narrative. In what is perhaps Michals' best known sequence "Things are Queer" from 1973 the image of a bathroom interior morphs from gigantic to tiny proportions as each picture becomes part of a larger whole of a man walking down a tunnel before shrinking back to the bathroom originally referenced, but now seen with greater meaning as a detail of the room now hints at the story just seen.

On the more sexual end there are ridiculous, erection-filled works like "Take One and See Mt. Fujiyama" and "The Young Girl's, Dream" in which a sleeping woman is seemingly ravished in a moment of angel-like visitation. Some of the sequences feature text hand-written by Michals, adding to the narrative quality of the work and acting as a gentle reminder of Michals' personable approach to directed photography.

Other terrific sequences include "The Bogeyman" and "Death Comes to the Old Lady," both of which description alone will fail to render faithfully and only disappoint those who have seen these works. Instead I would encourage you to seek them out in this or other retrospective volumes. The original series of Pantheon books, including this one, are now published by Thames & Hudson under the banner of a series called Photofile. New volumes on the work of artists such as Araki, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Peter Beard are also available. Each has fine reproductions, duotone in this case, and make for an affordable access point for some great artists.

"Duane Michals" makes for a fine summation of Michals' work up until 1986. Regrettably work since then is largely not worth seeing and what was once original now feels like the contrivances of an old man considering young sex, namely in the series "Salute, Walt Whitman." Regardless, Michals has given us some great, interesting images that reinforce how cold directed, or staged photography has become in recent years. This work is an intimate contrast to the chilly over-worked images produced in numerous BFA programs across the country.

Once I saw Duane Michals speak at an artist lecture at Arizona State University. He was spritely, witty, and generous with the jokes. While the audience of cynical art students may not have been swayed by his metaphysical fascination with serendipity and fleeting time, it was refreshing to hear an artist make a genuine effort to connect with the audience, rather than intoning dull, academic explications of this or that. Michals clearly enjoys life and photography. It is a feeling that comes across in work he shares with us through little books like this one.

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