Duane Michals

I fell in love with Duane Michals’ work when I was doing Context and Narrative and researched his work for my assignment 2 at that time. He has an uncanny way of leaving the viewer either chuckling away at the humour attached to his images or totally enthralled with his narratives and methods. His use of text with images have been the inspiration of other photographers such as Jim Goldberg and Cindy Sherman.

Ah Dreams, 1984 by Duane Michals

His use of text with images (usually handwritten around the photo) is quite imaginative, sometimes humorous, sometimes quite tongue-in-cheek or serious. In an interview with The New Yorker magazine when asked about the use of captions with his photography, Michals responded:

My writing grew out of my frustration with photography. I never believed a photograph is worth a thousand words. If I took a picture of you, it would tell me nothing about your English accent; it would tell me nothing about you as a person. With somebody you know really well, it can be frustrating. Sixty per cent of my work is photography and the rest is writing.

Duane Michals (The New Yorker)

Michals refer to his portraits as “prose portraits” claiming that a photo can never be a true representation of oneself. There are always hidden aspects to one’s character. A prose portrait tells us about the nature of the person. In his own words a prose portrait is “about a person, rather than of a person” (Michals, The New Yorker). This statement would explain why he adds rather down to earth captions to some of his portrait photos, like the one below.

James Coburn c. 1980s by Duane Michals

In another interview with American Photo I gathered the following valuable advice from Michals on creativity:

  • You should always stay open to every experience that comes your way. A lot of experiences will be strange and alien and scary and that’s the very reason you should search them out and investigate them. If you only stick to the familiar, you might as well get back in the womb.
  • Our lives are filled with experiences. … So we encounter all kinds of things and it’s how we respond to them that gives them their significance.
  • So always be open to new experiences and once they occur, don’t be afraid because being creative is based on fear—you don’t know what you’re doing. If you already know what you’re doing, you’re not really being creative.
  • Creativity is the discovery that you make in the process of evolving. So that’s essentially the most important thing to me, to always stay open.

Duane Michals (American Photo)

I found some of the captions on his work rather cryptic at times, but that might be because I’m not American and not familiar with some of the cultural references made. On the whole the captions serve to draw the viewer in, firstly to analyse the handwriting – Michals’ handwriting is a little to decipher at times, and secondly to engage with the narrative in the image.

Reference List

Bohnacker, Siobhan (n.d.) The Last Sentimentalist: A Q. & A. with Duane Michals [online] The New Yorker Magazine. Available at: http://projects.newyorker.com/portfolio/michals-empty-ny/ [Accessed 12 April, 2017]

Reznik, Eugene (2014). Interview: Duane Michals on 50 Years of Sequences and Staging Photos [online]. American Photo. Available at: http://www.americanphotomag.com/interview-duane-michals-50-years-sequences-and-staging-photos [Accessed 12 April, 2017]


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