DUANE MICHALS The medium of photography put to work by a philosopher of images
“When you look at my photos, you’re seeing into my thoughts.”
Duane Michals, who is Sidney Sherman? 2000, (one of six gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text on each image, 43 / 4 X 7 inches each sheet, 11 X 14 inches) © Duane Michals.
Against all expectations, it is astonishing to see that it is precisely in photography, the daughter of technique, that an image can find its “magic value”. From his portraits taken in the Soviet Union to the present day, Duane Michals never ceases to ask himself questions about the use of images, from representation to expression, and to play with his classical codes and the limitations of his art.
Duane Michals follows a precise artistic path which stands out easily from the documentary, vernacular style which appeared at the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s and which continues the debate initiated during the 1960s about the crisis in representation. Besides, it was at this time that a real desire for emancipation fell into place which made itself felt in terms of documentary photography and the ‘seventh art’, cinema. According to Michals, photography takes a more personal, more crafted tone, both in composition and in the assembly of intimate sequences which are played out in private atmospheres and represented in the form of a photogram. These series question our existence and daily lives in an abstract way.
Duane Michals, Chance Meeting, 1970 (Gelatin silver print on paper prints with hand-applied text 10.2 x 15.5 cm) © Museo Reina Sofía MNCARS.
Influenced by the poetry of the surrealist movement and its play on pictures and words (highlighting the importance of Henri Magritte), by metaphysical painting (Giorgio de Chirico and Balthus), conceptual photographers (Victor Burgin and Dan Graham) or again by the sequential style (Christian Boltanski), Duane Michals is in an intellectual and artistic milieu which aims to represent a constructed and comprised reality from several elements in a sequential form. This is how he transforms the image by making it speak, even dream, while advocating an absence of temporality. In focussing on the concept before representation, he deepens the meaning of the image to the point of making it irrational. He chooses to use this medium as a tool for expression so that, when faced with it, we ask ourselves questions we would not otherwise envisage. In a similar way to the intellectual humour of Henri Magritte, Michals allows you to see what is not visible, placing himself as the image's narrator.
The artist does not revolutionise the practice of photography, but he revisits it in order to render it at once personal and also universal. Photography is handled here as an aesthetic paradigm which allows us to perceive a touch of irony and the suspicion of a critical look at current society. He offers an intimate “window” on a reality related by actors developing their own story. The characters which Michals showcases through black and white portraits synthetically evoke classicism as much as current visual culture.
Duane Michals, Alice’s Mirror, 1974 (Sequence of 7 gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text, 5 × 7 in; 12.7 × 17.8 cm) © Getty Museum.
Through these overwhelming documentary images, Michals makes us feel what he feels, allows us to experience what he has experienced and to hear what he has heard. Can photography speak for itself or does it need writing to reinforce its arguments and to be heard? Looking at these works, we can wonder how you can tell a story while at the same time disrupting the codes of representation and language. By the association of two artistic forms, does the image become more powerful and its message more impactful?