PRINT January 1977

Duane Michals: The Self as Apparition

He was not surprised to find his closet empty. Everything familiar was becoming unfamiliar. He could not be sure of anything.
—from Something Strange Is Happening

BY EXPLORING THE SPECIFIC meanings in his photographic discourse, Duane Michals has arrived at a belief in the Platonic view of the universe. Things are not real; ideas are. For him, there exist fleeting surface appearances which we mistake for reality. To have faith in photographic information and then confront Michals’ purpose is to open a closet and find it empty. A photograph can neither imitate nor document a real situation or actual fact; it can only pretend to show a surface appearance. It can never hold up as “court evidence.”

As Michals sets up situations which are deliberately unavailable to people in the “real” world, there is no chance for us to accept what we see in his work as being normal, something encountered in ordinary life. And since he often creates his effects by superimposition or ambiguous camera point-of-view, there is an unreality, an intangibility built into the image. Michals is a “directorial” photographer, to borrow A.D. Coleman’s term. He focuses his attention on internalized realities: dreams, sexual fantasy, and his photographic self-consciousness. This “antiphotographic” sensibility rejects objective truth, transparency of the camera record, reality outside of self, the corporeality of the photographic object and the documentary capabilities of the photograph. His solipsism finally gives way to mystic relativism, where self is also discovered to be a mere apparition.

If there was ever a perfect subject for a portrait by Michals, it would have to be Andy Warhol. Warhol doesn’t seem to be “here” at all; removed from the world by his passive indifference, he is all appearance. Michals’ gift for using the blur (as in the Warhol tripartite portrait) establishes an instantaneous denial that we see clearly at all, that a photograph can aid our comprehension or memory. The blur undercuts belief that the camera can “stop” time, or provide certified facts. Do Michals’ subjects move? Yes, and the camera is powerless against the confusion of the ephemeral. Does Michals’ camera move? Perhaps. If so, he destroys the notion of the passive machine, its fixed stance, in a world of flux. Traditional art photography presents the illusion of reality. Michals first suggests the reality of illusion but goes to the end of his idea until he reaches the illusion of illusion.

The camera is an arbitrary, artificial manipulator. What goes on beyond the frame is automatically and capriciously voided. A traditional photographer’s job is to heighten negation by cropping individual images and editing from masses of images. Quite aside from the significance of such an act, what is striking about photographs is how they are virtually devoid of bodily properties, especially when compared with painting or sculpture. One thinks in terms of the image, not the object. The image is of changes of light on the surface of spurious materials. Is it any wonder that artists interested in dematerializing the art object turned to photography?

This information about the precarious materiality of shadows on paper can be obtained from any photograph, regardless of its image. What about the irretrievable circumstances under which a photograph is taken? Can they be honestly shown? In any situation where a photograph has been taken, the camera and photographer have intervened. The normal effect of the photographer is to deny any recognition of the record-taking activity itself. (We get this funny feeling, the feeling of “unreality,” when we see the photographer unexpectedly acknowledge his presence (his shadow, a finger near the lens, his reflection). The viewer is supposed to “tune out” the knowledge, edit out the fact of the photographer’s interaction or alienation from the subject. We expect transparency.

Michals’ sequence Chance Meeting, on the surface a very casual narrative, is immersed in the exposition of chance and the contradictions of street, direct or straight photography. How could it possibly be that these two men passed by “chance” when we know very well that Michals set up the entire situation in order to take pictures of it? Michals externalizes the covert alterations of material in nondirectorial photography. For that reason, instead of indulging, he disturbs the viewer’s complacency regarding presence, scale, context and cause.

But there’s a kind of power thing about the camera.
—Diane Arbus

The large majority of photographs we see in the context of the gallery or museum (including portable galleries, the monograph or theme book), fall into the category of formalism. Obviously this means that their content consists of the manipulation of forms, colors, textures, etc. Street photography is searching for the formal in the everyday. To be fancier, it is undialectical Duchampism. As the readymade mentality takes from life and replaces the world context with the art context, so the street photographer selects randomly from life and creates “art” by intention. The artist sees himself as “objective” by his removal from the world by the machine. The power of the camera masks the human alienation implicit in the act of photographing.

This photographic “art” is presented as a direct confrontation with reality when it is actually a set of images edited to the dictates of taste. The “artistic” sensibility is perhaps the most reactionary aspect of so-called “straight” photography. (For me the culmination of this mode was already achieved in the timeless, frozen works of Paul Strand, so that its current devotees are not only philosophically suspect, but historically tardy.) Even Duchamp saw the necessity of freeing his choices from the restrictions of taste. The art photographer instead presents covertly manipulated material as reality, albeit edited through taste.1

The question of intention is solved when the photograph is set up—directed—as in Michals. This demands a stress on ideas, not formal design. So, when the ideas fail, the photographs fail. If one does not accept this notion that photographs must be intimately involved with ideas, then there is every reason to accept each and every one of the billions of photographs taken every year as “art.” (I admit this point of view has a lot to be said for it.)

The question of billions of photographs is not one that Michals has ignored, since he obviously affirms the indefinite reproducibility of photos. He accepts that condition in his “professional” work for Vogue, Esquire, the New York Times Sunday Magazine and other mass-media publications. Control over print quality is relinquished under these circumstances. The precious object, the quality print and the privileged edition become irrelevant. Michals has to be unconcerned with the technical processes he must leave to others. Whereas in his other work the idea is paramount, in the fashion photograph, what idea can there be? In the absence of idea, there is function. But beyond this, the fashion photograph is the arch example of the triumph of appearance and surface over content and reality. What is of interest is all on the surface, presenting the possibility of fantasy. We know that limitless reproduction destroys aura. Michals does not fetishize the photographic object. But in his serious work he is interested in another kind of aura, unrelated to materialism and commodity value.

Michals came to photography by chance. On a trip to Russia, he was given a camera, and he took portraits of peasant women, sailors and children. The absence of detail or incident and his concentration on the staged photograph (all his subjects are aware that they are being photographed, as in Sander)—these qualities are continued in the photographs of famous people (René Magritte to Kim Novak). For me these works have little interest outside of an occasionally striking formal element, like the light falling through Venetian blinds in the David Hemmings portrait. The problem is that Michals is working against his own sensibility when he shoots a famous person.

Strong or well-known personalities are something of a cheat. They are too highly defined to be either only appearance or freshly discovered. As a rule, in order for Michals to create interest in a portrait, he must explain why it was interesting to him. He must tell us, he must write it down. While this strategy has been seen as a violation of the image (according to the advocates of “pure” photography), it’s obvious that thought itself plays a role in his work, that it can be furthered by prose accompanying an image which is never autonomous. The question is always, why this person? In order to answer this, to make his intention as clear as possible, Michals saw no inherent photographic solution; he was forced by necessity to add the caption. The caption began as nothing more than descriptive title, but it has grown into fully developed, albeit evasive, plot.

The caption under There Is No China contains the following line: “In the entire universe, there is just myself watching a beetle.” This is fully in keeping with Michals’ middle-period solipsism; here, reality emanates from self and encompasses only that which is immediately observed. Yet the dark, evocative, mysterious image which illustrates this caption, with its flecks of light, like that of fireflies randomly distributed in what appears to be a clearing or meadow in a forest, draws us irresistibly into Michals’ hallucinatory reverie. Yet, notice that Michals still accepts as “real” his own existence as well as the subject of his contemplation, the beetle.

In Inside and Outside, the reality exists beyond the camera’s subject. The image is of a middle-aged woman of no definite character sitting on a bed in a nondescript room. It cannot be the ordinary image quality which takes our breath away. The caption reads in part, “The flux of everything pulsed on and on.” The words directly contradict.the image. Michals writes of this woman, “She heard nothing.” He believes that he hears some cosmic pulsing that escapes this woman’s consciousness. In his self-portrait, Michals (as a merchant seaman, perhaps in homage to Genet or Cocteau?) appears less sure of the possibility of his thoughts being “real.” He invents an alter-ego to stand for his existence as appearance. Then there is The Man Who Invented Himself, where we see a reflection in a window and the face is completely obscured. It is an incomplete invention.

As a last gasp of hope, expressing his faith in the photographic image, Michals created 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. She did love me. It did happen. Look, see for yourself.

Neither the image nor the caption is very assuring. The image is too bland, hardly high romance. The caption is trying too hard to convince. We don’t know anything about this couple, if they were in love or what. In trial by photograph, it is impossible to decide guilty or not guilty. The photograph does create an aura, however, the aura of melancholy. The repeated emphasis in the caption is on the past tense, on loss and remembering, poignancies the image is incapable of expressing by itself.

How foolish of me to believe that it would be that easy. I had confused the appearances of trees and people and automobiles with reality itself and believed that a photograph of these transient appearances to be a record of it. I am a reflection photographing other reflections within reflections. It is a melancholy truth I must always fail. To photograph reality is to photograph nothing.
Failed Attempt to Photograph Reality (1976)

Michals is not afraid to draw the most extreme conclusions from his rigorous analysis of photographic activity. His Failed Attempt is the ne plus ultra of photography, a photograph with no image but an explanation of why there is no image, a photograph of words. It is a member of that small group of highly important and uncompromising works which defines the outermost perimeter of an artistic medium, from which all further work must be seen as a step backward, and which all subsequent work must take into account. Mallarmé’s blank page poem; Duchamp’s bottle rack: Cage’s silent piece, 4’33“; and Rauschenberg’s blank canvases all exist at the end point of discourse, yet also serve as a beginning, enabling the artist to ”go on." The works are necessary in themselves, and, in a curious way, have a life separate from their creators. We only need know that they exist; we never need experience them.

Michals’ piece of shiny photographic paper with the childlike scrawl presents itself as the end of something. There is no image. Photography cannot do justice to any subject. We can no longer be naive about photography’s inability to establish fact, discover truths or present reality. The only “tangible” reality is expressed in that lingering term “melancholy.” There is this single emotional truth, attached to the subjective self, and it is all we can know. Michals’ photographs, as we have seen, are suffused with this melancholy (and its precedents, possession, loss and memory). Melancholy takes on the importance of a philosophical/emotional superstructure. There lingers the platitude of the depressing emptiness of everything. Perhaps all the world’s a fashion photograph, existing only as surface, fantasy and appearance.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that his total preoccupation is with the illusionary appearances of photography. On the contrary, in the sequences involved with sex and dreams, he uses that illusion in the service of unphotographable realities, experiences we have but cannot express as objective facts or alienated commodities. Sex and dreams thus make ideal subjects for Michals.2

The erotic is the “appearance” of sexuality, fantasy about the possibility of sex built upon the surface trappings of the sex object. I say “object,” knowing that the erotic sensibility is attracted more to things than people. In that, it is a sensibility possessed by possession, and the unrequited possibility of possession.

People Eat People is a short sequence of photographs in which a man devours a woman in successive blurred movements until all that’s left is her horrified facial expression. Michals also did a series of photographs illustrating a text about an incestuous relationship which involved cannibalism and alter-ego sisters who are separated. (This text was given to him already written, and both text and photographs were published in Esquire.) Eating and oral sexual gratification are obviously linked, but more important is the loss of body parts, physical loss which is equated with devouring possession and remembrance of the absent.

The Enormous Mistake, The Pleasure of the Glove and Private Acts are all extremely erotic narratives which center on the surface appearance of the sexually desirable person. With Michals’ background in fashion, there is a beautiful logic in choosing clothing as erotic magnets. What hides our “reality,” our bodies, is the covering of clothing, the appearance we present to others. The sex act is never shown, for it is the reality which appears as a lie if photographed. Michals can only allude to the sex act. The Enormous Mistake is an allegory about a man forced to participate in anal sex (symbolized by a pair of boots.) The Pleasure of the Glove narrates the daydream of a man on a bus who fantasizes about a woman’s glove, animated with an insidious life by his own hand.

Michals is entirely consistent in his preoccupation with clothing as erotic surface, for, as a photographer, all he can deal with is that surface. Nothing else can be known, or shown. His human interaction is continually restricted to the sexual fantasy. Actually, it is no interaction at all, for the act must be thwarted every time. Any of his narratives can only partially be explained away as simple wish fulfillments, as fantasies of either the passive or aggressive party. To be constantly sublimating or suppressing desires is to be immersed in the melancholy of lost opportunities. It is to be seduced by sensuous appearances only to find one’s alienation in objectification. It is to be like a photographer.

Take One and See Mt. Fujiyama explains everything in its title except that Mt. Fujiyama turns out to be an erect penis hidden under a pair of underwear. Here, the possibility of sex is created by taking a pill and waking up into a dream. A naked woman enters the dream, but it turns out she is a giant and about to sit on the suddenly puny dreamer, and, by inference, on oneself. There are many things to discuss about this sequence, but let me emphasize how one strategy (used here as the “surprise” element) affects a whole set of conventions we use when we look at photographs. That strategy is the ambiguity of scale.

In Mt. Fujiyama, it is not surprising that an envelope of pills is shoved under the door, nor do we doubt the man’s natural curiosity in swallowing one. That is playful literary conceit. But if the woman who sits on his face were normal size, all the drama would be removed. The source of our terror is primitive—the kind of horror we feel in Japanese monster movies. A giant woman is simply unexpected and her giantness is what gives the story its punch.

The two best known of Michals’ sequences are Things Are Queer and Alice’s Mirror. The two have similar themes, and even share certain references to the enigmas and bizarre plots which create havoc with our conventions in Alice in Wonderland. Alice is a textbook on the deceptions of appearance (and disappearance) but it is also about changes of scale (as is Gulliver’s Travels, which would fit neatly into Michals’ correspondence between size and sexuality). Michals makes an issue of scale because photographic equivocations of scale tend to be too passively accepted.

Alice’s Mirror first presents a chair which we read as “normal” size. The next image places the chair on a small(?) antique stove with a circular mirror. The chair now appears to be a doll chair. The shift in scale is repeated in the next photographs until we find the whole image is only a reflection in a mirror. In the final image, the mirror is seen shattered in a half-opened fist. So much for “reality.” Reality is shattered; if it exists somewhere (in front of the broken mirror), we never see it. The shifts from “real” to reflection are accomplished by successive images giving the impression that the camera has “moved back,” moved away to reveal more and more of the context in which what we see exists. Scale is predicated upon the notion that we have a built-in prejudice to accepting proportions as they occur in the real world, and that a photograph will maintain these proportions. Not in Michals’ work—we can never say with any assurance what size anything is once we begin to study the images. In Alice’s Mirror it is impossible even to determine the size of any object relative to another, as they all cease to have any stable existence within the image.

Things Are Queer begins with a bathroom. The second photograph gives us a foot which is “too large” for the bathroom; again, the scale is thrown off immediately. The third frame “pulls back” to show the whole bathroom, with a man crouching over, holding onto his “too large” leg. One whole wall to the right is a mirror, and it reflects the toilet, sink and garbage can, but not the man in the room. The next photograph is a photograph within a photograph. A large thumb, off-center, holds open the pages of a book which has, as an illustration, the preceding photograph. The text under the photograph (within the photograph) speaks of giants and has a happy ending “now you marry my daughter.” In reference to scale, the “giant” leg turns out to be quite small. The next photograph shows a man in a dark corridor, with his back to us, holding up the book, with his thumb between the pages. The last image shows that this man is actually in a photograph hanging over the sink in the first photograph of the bathroom. And when we look back at the first photograph, there is the photograph hanging over the sink. The whole sequence is so involuted that it is impossible to sort out any kind of relative size, and that is certainly to the point. The sequence is cyclical, and if we read it backward, we “seem” to be getting “closer” to something, only to find out that we still cannot locate where we are, no matter how familiar the territory.

The mystery is not only about what size anything is, but is centered around how Michals can get away with pulling the rug out from under our faithful acceptance of relative size. The answer is simple, but simply raises another mystery: what presumably happens between the frames is also responsible for our dislocation. We cannot reconstruct the physical circumstances which created the movement of the camera or objects from one photograph to the next. If you think I am taking the images too literally, I submit that it is just this literalism which is the source of ambiguity, because Michals uses objects we take to be “real,” to have specific size, while simultaneously demonstrating that we cannot possibly accept their existence as presented.

In Margaret Finds a Box, Michals tells a short story about a girl finding a large box, her climbing into it, and the box leaving the ground. Perhaps Margaret has had a date made for her in Wonderland. There is a cat here which goes from a contented presence on a window sill, to near a chair, then blurs across the floor, looks up at the box, sits down apparently unconcerned with Margaret’s disappearance into the box, and ends up in the chair again. We view the cat in a series of jump cuts, from which we have no idea how long a time passes between each image, nor how the cat gets from one place to the next. But somehow there is an absolute rightness about that cat in the humorous illogicality of its movements. For Michals, in the end, can find no other out than through humor, jokes and non sequiturs.

Diane Arbus delved deeply into the contradictions of seeing (and taking) photographs. Like Michals, she first worked as a fashion photographer. Her obsession with how people present themselves, with clothing, drag, sexual metamorphosis, and, in her last works, the dream landscape, makes her particularly close in attitude to Michals. Her photographs of Eddie the Giant, dwarfing his living room and parents; of the Russian midgets in their “oversized” room; even the hotel lobby which contains all the outdoors on its wallpaper and the Hollywood set which is all facade: these things disturb us first because they destroy our notion of scale. Only her subjects were emphatically, frighteningly real.

If Michals assures us that all is appearance and dream, then Arbus rubs our noses in a reality we’d rather not confront. Richard Avedon has devised a pseudo-solution to the problem of reality and scale by blowing up his photographs to life-size. This is not a solution for the day-in-day-out photographic information we confront, for that is invariably smaller than what it seeks to imitate. But both Arbus and Michals insist in their work that things are not what they appear to be, and that there is no basis for faith.

In the end, Arbus found nothing but despair in the discrepancy between her reality and the act which alienated her from that reality. There existed only a freakish, ultimate absurdity which she exposed to us but which she cut herself off from by the “power” thing about the camera. Michals’ melancholy humor sees a universe in each person, and the possibility of a thousand realities. In his Human Condition, a man in the subway is transformed into a galaxy of stars. There is no need for captions.

A retrospective of Michals’ work was held at the Sidney Janis Gallery in November 1976.



1. Lately there has been speculation that, if one ignores the conscious attempt at formalism in art photography in order to pursue the wider meaning behind all photographs, then one will be able to detect a “deep structure” of human visual reflexes expressed universally in a finite number of mental/visual responses made during that act of photography. The reality of deep structures is certainly more tenuous than the connection between alienation in the Duchamp readymade and the objectification of the world in straight photography. Between visual cognition reflex and readymade-ism, there is no dialectic.

2. These two preoccupations have been shown to have connections with Surrealism and Symbolism by other writers. I am not disposed to deal with Michals’ work as it relates to historical models. The primary reason I feel Michals’ work in these areas is important is not because it resuscitates past art movements. but because today the other visual arts (painting, sculpture and cinema) have exhausted them.