Documentary & portraiture photography

2.1 The gaze in portraiture 2.2 Image and text 2.3 Case studies
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arrow Case Studies - Hamish Fulton | Karen Knorr | Duane Michals | Barbara Kruger

Duane Michals uses text and photographs in a deliberate combination to extend the narrative of both mediums, creating mini photo-short stories. They are often of a personal nature, Michals relies on his own history as subject material, often re-creating scenes in his family life to form modern day parables in a modern day medium. Increasingly, Michals uses the web, particularly Flash, to extend the sequencing control, being able to time the way the images and text appear, and create a new form of short movie, based loosely on existing material.

The words associated with the photographs form an integral part of the meaning of the whole work. They are located on the photographic paper, within the closed frame. Michals uses his own handwriting directly onto the print, and has been know to write and paint on prints of famous photographers he owns - extending their narratives to suit his own purpose.

He says, “No one can reproduce my handwriting, but someone else can always make a new print.” In this way we can see Michals makes a deliberate attempt to create one off pieces in a medium where the possibility of endless quality reproduction is inherent in multiple fine prints. This makes each piece unique, and increases the rarity of the work.

Michals began to associate the photograph with the narrative early in his career, in 1966, thinking and shooting in sequences. In 1974 he began to add written narratives to the photo narratives, and in 1979 began to combine painting with photographs.

Mostly he is known for his black and white prints, usually small in size, on a large white paper, onto which he scrawls his narratives.

The words associated with the pictures are integral - they are like poetic additions, titles in the vernacular, actually using the handwritten form as part of the image - closed within the confines of the photographic paper.

They are also fantasies, elaborate comic distortions relying on humour and the sense of the absurd to proceed. They are like films, and fall between silent movies of years gone by, with action on screen being followed by a screen of full text narrating the plot sequence. Michals borrows many techniques from different art forms, combining them to weave intricate stories.

What Michals creates is photo-fiction, where the exploration of his own morality / mortality is interwoven with universal themes. The words prolong atmosphere, enhance narrative, and motivate the viewer to continue, propelled by the anticipation they create. While the themes he borrows from are hardly new, or rely on a particular New York state of mind, the combination of mediums allows the fiction to sustain itself, and the stylistic indulgence to become integral to the presentation.

In an interview with Michael Sand in Aperture Magazine, he calls his writing a “child-like scrawl” and adds, “writing for me is the possibility of being more intimate, I think I can be much more private in language than I can in a photograph. There’s certain presumptions made about photographs, which may in fact have nothing to do with reality at all. So it’s a great responsibility to write.”

The theme of the too real photograph is a reason why he started moving away from simple single images that made his name in the 1960's. After a trip to Russia, his work became known, and his professional work blossomed. It was his frustration with the simplicity of traditional presentation that started his quest for something different, and a way to take risks with the medium. What we see is an emotional use of words by and artist who found frustration with the single image as a means of expressing his viewpoints. The combination of sequence, and word narrative seems a risky way to take his use of the medium further, by edging his the photograph too close to a short story photo novel, or still silent movie.

In his book “Duane Duck” he writes, “the natural solution was to begin writing on the borders around the photograph, denying the commonly held view that a picture is worth more than a thousand words. And in doing so breaking one of the most serious of photographic taboos. The image was totally inadequate. A photograph of my parents or my father doesn’t tell me for a second what I thought of my father, which for me is more important than what the man looks like. So then I had to evolve into writing. Not that writing actually describes what you are looking at, but to actually talk about what you can’t see.”

Talking about this quote specifically, would a good photograph of his father have changed the way he though about expressing his father’s likeness in a photograph? Had he successfully captured his father in one image, through skill as a photographer, would we have seen the need for a combination of words and pictures to fill the artistic desire?

Is Michals reinventing a medium to cover his own inadequacies?

© John Frederick Anderson

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