Rencontres d’Arles 2009 – Familes, Freud and Farsters: Episode Three – The Inimitable Duane Michals charms Arles


Duane Michals talking about his work at Rencontres d'Arles 2009, photo © Lisa Barber

While I was studying photography, I remember that my first introduction to the work of Duane Michals came as something of a revelation (alongside that of Ralph Eugene Meatyard but for very different reasons). Here was a photographer creating sequences of black and white photographs with intriguing narratives featuring angels arriving through windows and blurred presences framed by handwritten texts that drew me in, made me smile and ponder photography in a way I hadn’t before. “I destroyed the tyranny of the decisive moment,” Michals remarked in Arles this year to the attentive crowd squashed into the Palais de l’Archeveche. “When I became a photographer you could be Adams (Ansel), Bresson (Henri-Cartier), or Frank (Robert) but when I showed sequences of photographs Winogrand (Garry) walked into the room and said that they were not photographs.”

In his talk, anecdotes trip off Michals tongue in continuous succession, though I understand from photographers who listened to more than one of them that they are scripted. However, Michals is the consummate performer and each talk is also sprinkled with spontaneous observations and asides. Some Michalisms:

“I’m hopelessly lost in the eighteenth century, I haven’t even entered the twentieth century.”

He says that he doesn’t speak speak much French, then offers, “Je suis tres fatigue,” with which the diminutive Michals mimes the two syllables making up the word fatigue as fatty-gay.

Michals obviously loves word play and is able to manipulates sounds and syllables as well as the visual so that his work, at times, derides (quite gently but with no less passion), pretension, celebrity and art world superficiality. One of the texts included in the show is the following:

Dr Duanus’s Infernal Tongue-In-Cheeky Journal, (open or download Lens Work Quarterly 24 as pdf for full text)

Farster\ Färster \n one who confuses fashion with art

In an interview with Michals in photoinsider, James A Cotter reports Michals as saying: “Herb Ritts is a fartster, the Boston Museum is a fartster. To show head shots of Cindy Crawford or any of the multitudes of Cindys is the work of a fartster,” Michals explains.

It’s no surprise then that Michals quotes Oscar Wilde – and this one is particularly pertinent:

“The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing,” Oscar Wilde

Michals is as sharp now as ever. He has created pastiches of some of the big sellers in the contemporary photography art market with versions of Sherman (Cindy), Beecroft (Vanessa), Serrano (Andre) and Gursky (Andreas) and dives into a realms where words and images – even the frame (those rectangular shapes that most elements in a composition are contained by) take on new forms and meanings. His recent colour tableaux are contained by fan-shaped frames, inspired by Gaugin’s fan. This is a shape with an inherent and rather elegant beauty which, he says, “makes more demands” while also referencing Japanese art and culture.

In Tattle-Tales from the Land of Fauxtography, (see Duane Michals Foto Follies HotShoe book review), Michals offers a humourous but scathing critique of the trend for large-scale photographs in the art market:

Never trust any photograph so large it can fit in a museum.

Duane Michals, who is now in his seventies, has played visual and verbal games since he became a photographer. However, in my research for links for this post it seems that there is some difference of opinion about exactly when he became a photographer. According to photography critic Francis Hodgson writing in the Financial Times, (28 July 2009), Duane Michals, Palais de l’Archevêché, Arles, France:

“When he started in the 1970s, there was a considerable movement of constructed, fabricated photography. It came partly from dissatisfaction with plain documentary and partly in response to the new availability of photographic criticism. If people such as Andy Grundberg (critic on the New York Times) or A.D. Coleman (on the Village Voice) were prepared to take photography seriously as an art form, then artists felt encouraged to try new forms of expression to shake it up a bit …Collage, multiple-exposure, performance, mixed media and other techniques were brought in – anything to challenge the (perceived) literalness of photography’s approach in the past. I notice, for example, that Michals almost never shows a horizon. This makes his scenes straight away theatrical.”

However according to the Rencontres d’Arles press pack, “Without formal training, Michals broke new ground in an era dominated by documentary photography. In the 1960s he began using the medium to tell stories in narrative form by employing a series of images.” This corresponds to wikepedia’s entry on Duane Michals: “In 1958 while on a holiday in the USSR he discovered an interest in photography. The photographs he made during this trip became his first exhibition held in 1963 at the Underground Gallery in New York City.”

It appears that the decade in which Michals started taking photographs is the 1960s. Now wikipedia is not the most reliable of sources, but it is in line with the official press pack. The lesson is, once again, check your sources and don’t believe everything you read. Furthermore, it is easy to see how easily inaccuracies are circulated and perpetuated. In the world of huge amounts of free information, it pays to check the facts. So I will look into this again.


Duane Michals talking about his work at Rencontres d'Arles 2009, photo © Lisa Barber

This is the last in my Arles triptych. For Episode Two, just Follow Me


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