Research Notes – Duane Michals

The following notes are taken after looking at some of Duane Michals work in the ArtBlart website (link)(1)

I was initially attracted to Michals series of pictures, and in particular to “Things are Queer” (link) and “The Spirit Leaves the Body” (link). There are text captions in these series, but they seem to be marginal and serve no other specific purpose other than providing a title and setting the correct order of the sequence. Both series start and end with the same photograph, but I did not get the impression I was looking at the same thing at the end, as I was at the beginning. The sequence builds up an idea and by the time one looks at the final photograph, the cumulative information makes one interpret that frame differently. In the case of “The Spirit Leaves the Body”, I thought of the final frame as representing a body without a soul, yet this image is exactly the same as the initial one, when the soul was supposed to be still in the body, and then we gradually see it leaving through the sequence. The soul is indeed invisible, and if we were presented with only the first and final images, eliminating the intermediate part of the sequence, and were told that in the first image the soul is present in the body but in the second image it is gone, we would probably laugh at the suggestion, perhaps pointing out that there is no soul and both images are printed from the same negative. Yet, the sequence that Michals has put together has created an illusion of the soul, and has made us believe in the invisible. The actual execution seems very simple, likely done using double exposure in camera, something that we have played with on numerous occasions, but the idea in itself is not as straightforward to come about, and to have it done as a circular sequence, starting and ending in the same place, makes it even more intriging.

“Things are Queer” also starts and ends with the same image, but on this occasion my reaction was slightly different from that of “The Spirit Leaves the Body”. By the time I got to the final frame, I was not sure the picture hanging over the wash basin was there in the first image (it was). I completely ignored that detail when looking at the first picture and so Michals seems to be telling us that not all is what we think, and sometimes it is, but we choose to ignore it. The sequence itself is a clever idea, reminiscent of the puzzles of the mind played by Escher, but on this occasion I felt that the series in itself was not as important as the message it conveyed. That message, which I personally think is about incredulity, and perhaps not trusting our own senses, is also present in “The Spirit Leaves the Body”, albeit not as strongly.

I was not as moved by the standalone image and caption combinations that I have seen from Michals. I felt that in many cases the images were playing a minor role to the text. This is the opposite of the effect that I had when looking at the series, and does perhaps betray a certain bias of myself towards visual forms of communication. Notwithstanding this, I found the image “This Photograph Is My Proof” (link) as the one in which text and image were almost in equal footing. The text is clear in what it does, but while the photograph itself shows a seemingly happy couple, we know nothing else about them. It is not even possible to know, at least for somebody discovering Michals now, whether the man depicted in the image is the photographer himself or an actor. Furthermore, we do not know if the events were depicted candidly or were staged. The text refers to the image as “proof”, yet the image itself is proof of nothing because what is supposed to prove, love, is intangible. The final feeling I have from this image is, just like in the series commented above, of incredulity, but perhaps more so because the signs depicted in the image all point to the same direction (let’s call it “happiness”) whereas my mind seems to be going in the opposite one. In the case of “The Spirit Leaves the Body”, we were persuaded to believe in the intangible soul leaving a body by the trick of the camera. Michals tries to do the same with just one image, but while the signs of affection are there (smiles, togetherness), it somehow lacks irrefutability. Perhaps the problem in this case is the text, which thinks too much of the image, much more than what it can actually offer.

In “A Letter from My Father” (link), another standalone image-caption combination, the relationship between image and text is quite feeble. The impression I had when looking at this is basically the same I had when looking at Sophie Calle’s work in the context of the 2017 Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize (see my original comments here), that the image here is almost and afterthought, used just to prop the text but not actually adding much, to the point that I could get exactly the same result by reading the caption on a standalone basis.

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(1) Art Blart. 2017. Duane Michals This Photograph Is My Proof | Art Blart. [ONLINE] Available at: https://artblart.com/tag/duane-michals-this-photograph-is-my-proof/. [Accessed 01 November 2017].

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