CMOA defines Pittsburgh-raised artist as amateur photographer, activist, pioneer
Duane Michals styled himself an anti-artist, and in doing so, he became an important artist of his time.
The Carnegie Museum of Art exhibit Storyteller: Photographs of Duane Michals, which opened on Saturday, is devoted entirely to the McKeesport-raised artist. His many works, ranging widely across media and subjects, cover every wall of the deep exhibit space.
In the 1960s, emerging as a pioneer in his form, Michals prided himself on his lack of education in photography. “I never went to a photography school, which was my saving grace,” he said; occasional quotations from the artist are painted in a large, clean serif beside his works.
Michals fashioned himself an amateur in a world of narrow-minded photography, and no one can question that he crossed boundaries. More than craft or technique, his photographs, especially when viewed in sequence, are valuable at the conceptual level. Each piece leaves viewers with something distinct and sensational — an idea, a question, a feeling. It’s a phenomenon that defies any unifying kind of analysis, and can only be examined on an individual basis, distinct from work to work.
Photography and Reality
Immediately stepping into the exhibit space, it’s apparent Michals lives in a distant, high-up conceptual world. When visitors first enter the exhibit, they are greeted with a hanging translucent plaque, covered in the artist’s childish, scratched, sprawling cursive. It’s headlined in harsh caps, “A FAILED ATTEMPT TO PHOTOGRAPH REALITY.”
“How foolish of me to believe that it would be that easy,” Michals wrote. “I had confused the appearances of trees and automobiles and people with reality itself and believed that a photograph of these appearances to be a photograph of it.”
“I am a reflection photographing other reflections within a reflection,” Michals continued. “To photograph reality is to photograph NOTHING.”
It seems like a hopelessly abstract assessment. It has the desperate edge of an artist on the verge of what he’s seeking. Many of Michals’ works attempt to upend our notions of reality, if only momentarily, and it’s a sensation best experienced by viewing his works.
Things Are Queer
Maybe the best (and most proximate) example is “Things Are Queer,” one of the many photographic sequences Michals produced throughout his career: a horizontal series of nine frames, placed side by side and viewed chronologically, from left to right.
The first photo depicts a dingy, but otherwise unremarkable bathroom: toilet, bathtub, and sink. Hanging above the sink is an object too small to identify: Is it a mirror revealing the photographer’s indistinct shape, or a photograph within a photograph?
In the second frame, labeled “2,” a man’s hairy leg and foot emerges on the scene, giant in comparison to the bathtub and sink, cut off at the top. In “3,” the photo pans out further, revealing a man bent from the waist over a miniature bathroom setup in what appears to be a window display.
The first three slides are head-spinning enough, but the series doesn’t end there. In “4,” the same image “3” appears on the page of a book, thumbed down by an off-screen hand. In “5” and “6,” we see the owner of that thumb holding that small book at eye level, standing alone in a dark tunnel.
In “7” and “8,” we realize that the image of the man is framed on a wall above a sink. And the original mystery object above the sink is identified. The first and ninth photos are identical.
It’s an Inception-reminiscent cycle, with a similar mind-bending twist. It’s not clear what Michals intends to impart with this series, but we can guess it’s something along the lines of, “Things are not as they seem.”
Not all of Michals’ works weave such implicit messages, though. Some of them are scratched right onto the paper, in the artist’s own distinct inky cursive.
Black Is Ugly
On the wall opposite “Things Are Queer” hangs a seemingly unremarkable profile of an ordinary black man in a rough suit, looking ahead, lips pursed as if in mid-thought. Unlike the photo sequences, it stands alone, accompanied only by the artist’s uneven, looping scrawl below the photograph.
“All his life he believed the lies white men had told him,” Michals wrote. “He believed that black was ugly and a punishment from God, although he could not guess what his sin must have been. So he spent his life being cold when white men were warm, and being hungry when white men were fed.”
“And when I told him it was not true, he would not believe me,” Michals concluded. “It was too late.”
The caption, relayed in the artist’s own hand, gives the simple portrait a dynamism it could not have achieved on its own. The message is grand in scope, yet concise, powerful, and almost poetic in delivery.
Many of Michals’ portraits aren’t so politically infused. Most of them offer simple snapshots — skillfully captured, to be sure, but empty of direct commentary.
In addition to his deviations from the form, among Michals’ work are more than a few traditional portraits — some of everyday subjects, others of celebrities and artists. His 1958 “Children in Leningrad” is of National Geographic type, capturing three inquisitive children in a half-candid, half-posed state. The rightmost, taller girl stares expressionless above the photographer’s head, while the center girl stares the camera straight on, a lift to the corner of her mouth, rectangles of light reflecting white off her too-narrow round glasses. Half-obscured behind her, a boy peers, smiling, over her shoulder, his long hair tousled back and his face bearing a glint of hesitant curiosity.
Michals’ 1975 portrait of Meryl Streep is similarly half-posed, half-candid, though the subject is vastly different. This portrait shows the actress facing the camera, arms open, long hair lifting, eyebrows raised, mouth open as if in mid-sentence. Her expression verges on almost-surprise; instead, it’s a sort of spontaneity. Everything in this portrait is bursting with the potential for movement.
A Global Glimpse
These descriptions just scratch the surface, though. From even a casual walk-through of the exhibit, it’s apparent that the diversity of Michals’ works is unusual for an artist, especially a living one. In addition to portraits and photo sequences, Michals did commercial work as well — magazine and album covers — and his “Paris Stories,” a commissioned assignment, spans two walls with whimsical single-subject snapshots of a playful blond among various Paris monuments and landscapes.
At the exhibit’s end, it’s clear that the curator struggled to somehow tie the many straggling ends that represent Michals’ incredibly broad foray into photography and beyond. The most interesting item in the farthest-back room is a huge blown-up photo of a large pickle on a sterile-looking white plate and background. The accompanying quotation warns, “Never trust any photograph so large it can only fit inside a museum.” The automatic and necessary response is, “And look where it ended up.”
In a painfully timely display, “Self Portrait with Robin Williams” hangs on the adjacent wall, depicting a whimsical, photo-booth-like series, showing the artists laughing, embracing, and pointing at one another.
Michals is an enigma, to be sure. Where was he going with all this? The combinations of media, form, and technique he attempted seem almost haphazard in their diversity. Once he became bored with one genre, it seemed he jumped right to another. It’s no wonder the exhibit is segmented and strained in its attempt to unify this body of work.
A quotation on the final wall, though, may give us a clue. “When people ask me what I do,” Michals said, “I say I’m an expressionist. It’s about how well I express myself using writing or photography or painting or drawing.”
It’s a beautiful, if only partly satisfying, summary to Michals’ work. The haphazardness makes sense, and it takes on that same driving, almost desperate search for truth Michals tried to express in that first “FAILED ATTEMPT TO PHOTOGRAPH REALITY.” Michals isn’t a failed artist, but a dogged, resourceful one, unsatisfied with one medium or form — instead trying them all. His pieces originate in thought and took on whatever materials Michals thought best to express it. He isn’t an amateur so much as an explorer.