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Duane Michals, “Grandpa Goes to Heaven” (1989), spread from ‘Storyteller’ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the ’60s, photographers anxious about the art form’s legitimacy set out to distinguish fine art from documentary practices. Photographer Duane Michals has shattered these preconceptions about photography throughout his career. Michals is profiled in Storyteller, a book by Linda Benedict-Jones, released by Carnegie Museum of Art to coincide with last year’s retrospective of the same name; the text offers a survey on the unorthodox methods that separate Michals from his contemporaries. In the book, Michals speculates on why his work was so unique in the art world: “I never went to a photography school, which was my saving grace. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to write on a photograph, and I didn’t have to unlearn all the rules that school teach you.” 

Michals, who does not work in a studio, blurs the line between fine art and documentary photography by choosing to shoot his “fictional” subject matter in quotidian settings. Nevertheless, his images warp the reality they depict. His cinematic composition uses blurs of motion to turn still images into dynamic representations. The surreal costumes and location choices, as well as Michals’s visual motifs such movement, ascension, and the supine position create a thematic interplay between the everyday and the afterlife.

The press release for Michals’s first show at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), included in the book, aptly describes his photo sequences as “mime fables.” His work often prioritizes narrative over aesthetics, communicating visual stories by presenting individual images side-by-side, like a comic strip. Fantastic scenarios emerge, while the changing elements from one photo to the next imply the passage of time between panels.

Duane Michals, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1982)

Quote from Duane Michals included in ‘Storyteller’

In 1971, Michals began his series The Journey of the Spirit After Death, loosely based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Scenes taking place in the “real world” are filled with dreamy, religious, or spiritual symbols, provided with written context in the photos’ margins. Michals initially converted his handwritten marginalia captions into typeset text, to not distract from the serious subject matter of the photos.

While Michals had scribbled on his images before, after this project, he began to include handwritten notes with his images more frequently and extensively. Usually captions are meant to explain what is in the image; however, Michals uses words to contradict himself in the images he presents. He uses handwriting to intimately connect with the viewer. The captions cause us to question what we see, rather than define the image.

Michals uses the still image to capture a moment, embalming it for posterity. His photographs interrogate mortality and the passage of time. “Things that cannot be seen are the most significant. They cannot be photographed, only suggested.” Each of these moments takes place in an individual “Now,” which represents for Michals “that edge, that moment, that sliver between being and not being.” White space, where Michals’s handwriting often lives, represents the fleeting contexts in which these images were captured.

Themes such as ghosts, fear, death, stairs, climbing, leaving, and heaven permeate his work. In a 1969 issue of Camera, one of the excerpts documented in the book, Michals expressed his interest in “the mystery of myself and my life and the reality of my death and what I can do with my camera to salute it.” He explores this sense of loss and change by juxtaposing presence and absence. Through his use of sequences, Michals creates evidence of the impossible in his images.

Duane Michals, “This Photograph is My Proof” (1967)

Duane Michals, “Lenny Kaye Looks Like an Old Sting” (1985) and “Sting Looks Like an Old Danny Kaye” (1982)

Duane Michals, “Black Is Ugly” (1974)

Duane Michals, “The Spirit Leaves the Body” (1968)

Linda Benedict-Jones’s Duane Michals: Storyteller is published by Carnegie Museum of Art and is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

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