“The best part of us is not what we see, it’s what we feel. We are what we feel. We are not what we look at… We’re not our eyeballs, we’re our mind. People believe their eyeballs and they’re totally wrong… That’s why I consider most photographs extremely boring – just like Muzak, inoffensive, charming, another waterfall, another sunset. This time, colors have been added to protect the innocent. It’s just boring. But that whole arena of one’s experience – grief, loneliness – how do you photograph lust? I mean, how do you deal with these things? This is what you are, not what you see. It’s all sitting up here. I could do all my work sitting in my room. I don’t have to go anywhere.”
Duane Michals (*1)
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Duane Michals, born in 1932, is an influential American narrative photographer who broke away from established traditions of documentary and fine art photography in the 1960s when he added handwritten messages and poems to prints, produced multi-image narrative sequences, and experimented with double- and triple-exposures. His work was poignant and unabashedly sentimental, flying in the face of the dominant photographic aesthetics of the time. Michals said of his work ““I’m a storyteller. When I began to do sequences, it wasn’t because I thought it was cool and the latest thing. I did it out of frustration with the still photograph. I’m not interested in what something looks like, I want to know what it feels like… My reality has entered a realm beyond observation.”
He produced single images as well as series, but these are equally narrative in style as they raise questions about what went before and what follows. An example of a single Michal’s photograph which tells a story is ‘This Photograph Is My Proof’ which depicts a man and a woman on a double bed (see image above). The image appears to show an intimate and warm moment between the two with both smiling and the woman holding the man from behind and nestling up to his back, but both are looking at the camera which is presumably being held by a third person suggesting that the moment is possibly staged. In Michal’s iconic way, he has written text in the margins of the image which reads
‘This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon when things were still good between us and she embraced me and we were so happy. It did happen. She did love me. Look see for yourself!’
To a casual observer the image on its own, giving no back story or pointer to the future, is likely to be taken as a simple record of a moment shared, with no great poignancy or significance attached to it. It is a photograph of a type that appears countless times in personal or family photograph albums and would be glossed over as being just another record of a moment in a shared life whilst leafing through the album.
Given the time and the motivation for closer consideration, however, questions can arise. Is it shot in a hotel room or a guest house as is suggested by the bland decor? If so, where and when? Does the daylight streaming through the window indicate that it was taken during the middle of the day? Is it taken on holiday, in which case who took the photograph? Was it a holiday shared with others or a romantic getaway? The possibility of the picture recording an illicit and planned sexual encounter or a snatched moment of intimacy is made less likely if the photograph was taken by a third person. Or was the photograph taken as a staged shot by the subjects themselves as an elaborately arranged ‘selfie’? This would put a different spin on the image entirely. However, what happened in the minutes, months and years leading up to and following the moment of the shot are unknown but of little apparent relevance to the image. It is a record of a moment in time.
The addition of the text creates a wholly different dynamic. The presence of the handwritten text immediately adds a significance and a range of storylines to the image which it did not have on its own. Together they are saying ‘I am not just one of many, a random artefact. I am unique and I have an importance that is worthy of your attention. Look at me and read my story!’ But what is that story? Should we take the image and its text at face value or should we look beyond. Is the text making a statement to add clarity and to reinforce the first impressions or is it adding irony or a twist of meaning from the artist’s personal psychology? Is it documentary or fiction?
On the face of it, the image and the text could be taken as both telling the same simple, factually accurate, story and nothing more. However, the artist’s choice of words and phrases such as ‘proof‘, ‘still happy’, ‘It did happen’, ‘She did love me’ and ‘Look see for yourself‘ adds significance and context that changes the whole feel of the image and the viewer’s response to it. There is clearly a back story that is of great emotional significance to the creator of the work. The text suggests that the relationship is over and that the writer is in doubt that their partner ever felt love towards him. Indeed he is looking for some sort of reassurance that there was love there. The image and text together raise a host of questions and possible psychological / emotional responses in the mind of the viewer and these will be personal to the viewer focused and screened by the viewer’s personality and life experiences. For me the kaleidoscope of emotions changes with each twist of the mind and its focus. On one extreme there is a dark and chill undercurrent of belief that this is what happens in romantic relationships. They cannot be trusted and are built on a tissue of conscious or unconscious deceits and unmet hopes and needs which lead to insecurity and loneliness or even emotional or physical damage. On the other extreme, the warm, fuzzy and exciting connection that can be created by the physical and emotional intimacy of a romantic relationship can be an enriching, all-consuming and life confirming experience while it lasts both for the couple involved and for those who are touched by it. Of course there are many realities and nuances in between.
I could explore this in much greater depth and look at and discuss a wide range of observations and possible scenarios (an exercise that I would find interesting) but it is not my purpose to do so in the context of this course. I will instead look at the image and how its impact is changed by the added text. The inclusion of the people within the image is what gives the image interest and depth through the creation of an integral story and emotional content. If the people were not in the image and it showed only the empty room there would be nothing to hold the attention, fire the imagination or create emotion. There would only be the void created by the absence and the longing for something to fill the vacuum and give a focus. This is clearly what Michals himself thought judging by the quotation at the top of this page where he requires that photographs contain an emotional element and/or create an emotional response if they are not to be bland and the visual equivalent of muzak.
The presence of the people in the image gives a focus and, like a grain of sand in an oyster, a nucleus on which to build. How that build takes shape and what it contains will be influenced by the individuality of the viewer as I have said earlier but it will also be influenced by the visual content of the image and the messages that they are capable of imparting. If the subjects were facing away from the viewer or were staring unemotionally into space for instance then this would impact significantly on the viewer’s response to the image and their consideration of it. It could be enough to cause them to reject and/or distance themselves from the picture. However, despite the depth and nature of the detail in the image there is a limit set on the distance that the viewer can travel in his / her mind’s imagination with any confidence that what they are experiencing about the image is true.
A photograph is to a large part, if not entirely, a deception, the meaning of which is made ‘real’ only by the viewer’s take on it. Indeed, this is true of any art form. The reality of what is in the mind of the artist when they create the work can be transmuted by the mind of the viewer into something entirely different and this can be disconcerting for the viewer if it is important for them to ‘get’ the artist’s original meaning and reality. The disparity between the artist’s and the observer’s sense of meaning and reality is less marked or significant when the art work is an accurate and realistic depiction of the subject as there is less scope for personal analysis and reflection. Animal and flower portraits, conventional landscapes, sunsets and posed family groups are all examples of this type of image, the type of image that Michals would refer to as visual muzak. Some would consider that such works would not qualify as being ‘art’ as there is no depth or context to them. The addition of a few words of text can add a whole new layer of meaning to any image and thereby increase its level of interest and relevance. The value of the use of a few well chosen words of text as a tool for adding significance and depth of meaning to a photograph is something that I have previously been vaguely aware of but this exercise has really brought home to me the great potential for use in my future work. A look at Duane Michal’s greater body of work has also highlighted for me the value of short narrative series for exploring ideas and concepts. Examples that impressed me include ‘Chance Encounter‘, and ‘Things are Queer‘.
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