New York

Duane Michals

In Duane Michals’ Chance Meeting, 1970, two men pass each other in an alley. In the ensuing scenes, one turns to look, only to see the other’s back. Finally, the latter turns back, missing the former’s glance but meeting ours. “The Duane Michals Show,” Michals’ first retrospective in the United States, presented an opportunity to have more than just a “chance meeting” with his camera lens and pen. For Michals, the camera is like a clock: it cannot capture time, but only mark its passage—photography records the path of Xeno’s arrow, approaching infinity but never reaching its mark. The accumulation of images, whether those of his own oeuvre or of the history of photography itself, represents a piling up of the past toward a never complete picture of reality.

The succession of images in Things Are Queer, 1973, explores the degree to which the camera is able to record reality. As each frame passes, a layer of reality is peeled away to reveal a new, “truer” one. The elliptical series of nine photos begins with a view of an empty bathroom, its scale called into question in the next frame by the intrusion of a colossal human foot. In the following frames the camera pulls back to show the staging of the scene, and then further, to show the set inside the page of a book, a book being read by a man walking down a street. Finally, this man is framed in the picture hanging above the sink in the same bathroom represented in the initial scene. By concluding with the same image, the apparently objective image of the initial frame, Michals lays bare the fictionality of his narrative.

In marking the camera’s inability to record reality, Michals also posits the ineluctable disappearance of the present into the past. As he states in A Failed Attempt to Photograph Reality, 1974, “It is a melancholy truth that I can never photograph it.” This failure transforms his project into a voyeuristic meditation on time, a melancholic rapture on the loss of friends and family, on love fading to memory like print on paper, on the one-sided relationship of the voyeur to the object of desire. The camera becomes a way to get close to, while still remaining far away from, this desired object. The Camera’s Caress, 1985, captures a man whose back is turned to us reading a book entitled The Nature of Desire, in which is written: “I took the photograph, over and over, again and again, compulsively knowing that when I stopped, and set the camera down, the moment would be lost. . . .”

For Michals, time is lost in the clicks of a camera’s shutter. Too much time, the image bums in whiteness; not enough time and it remains cloaked in darkness: the camera as witness to the metaphysical dilemma of capturing the present moment. As the camera snaps, the present becomes lost in the past. “There is no now,” laments Michals in Now Becoming Then, 1978. “It appears to us as a moment, but that moment is an illusion. The illusion is a series of about-to-bes and has-beens that put together create an event.”

The images recorded in Michals’ photographs are like phantoms flickering in the smoke of an extinguished candle, each narrative a memento mori still life in which the camera’s eye looks deep into an entropic vortex.

Kirby Gookin