Duane Michals had a major retrospective at the Carnegie Museum of Art that then moved to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, which is where I saw it (and where it will be until June 21). Shortly afterward I called Duane up and asked if we could talk. A month later we did, and here is the first third of that conversation. If you’ve ever heard Duane speak in public you know he is a very dynamic speaker, but you’ll find this very different, a quiet conversation, ruminative and thoughtful. It is a Duane Michals not many people see.
I met Duane many years ago when I was just starting out in photography. I had seen some pictures of his that were really different than what I’d seen or what I was trying to do. At that time New York Photography was like a small town, so when I was sending out invitations to my very first show in New York I addressed one to him. And he came. And we hit it off.
I appeared in a few of Duane’s sequences (like this one, Things are Queer). I interviewed him a couple of times for the various magazines Jim Hughes edited. And when my friend Ted Haimes directed a film about Duane and his work, he asked if he could film it in my loft down on White Street.
One of the things that he wanted to film was a motion version of Duane’s sequence of stills called The Spirit Leaves the Body. In the original, a body lies on a gurney. In subsequent frames the body continues to lay there, but by double exposing a second ghostly body appears, sits up, gets up, and walks out of the frame. The last photo is of the solid body still lying on the gurney, but now something has changed. Ted asked me if I would play the spirit/body. Sure.
Did I mention I’d be naked?
Well, it really wouldn’t be a problem—it was after all the 70s. And besides, I knew the lighting was shadowy enough that no one would ever know it was me.
So the day came and we began filming a number of shots in my loft. And when it came time to shoot Journey I took my clothes off and lay down on the gurney and we shot a long clip with me just lying there.
Then I lay perfectly still as they cranked the film back to the starting point and started the camera again, and after a few seconds Ted told me to sit up, stand up, and start walking out of the frame. And at the last minute Duane told me to stop and look back at my recumbent body. I did, and then I walked out.
About four months later I got a call from Ted to say they were showing the finished film—called Duane Michals: 1939-1997—at the New York Film Festival and would I like to come see it? Of course I would, and on the day I headed uptown with my then-new-girlfriend-now-wife. We were sitting in the dark theater as the movie played, and when the spirit scene came on, sure enough there was no way that you could tell it was me.
…about four rows behind me a woman’s voice said, “That’s Sean Kernan!” I froze. My girlfriend said simply, “Who do you suppose that was?” I didn’t know then and I didn’t know now.
But we survived.
Then, as now, when young photographers looked at Duane’s work for the first time, their heads spun around about three times on their shoulders. In an instant their entire conception of what a photograph could be had changed. His work tends to enter very directly into one's consciousness and throw what one knows on the floor. And then one has to pick everything up and examine it as one tries to put it all back. A lot of it just gets thrown out.
I am constantly meeting photographers who say that Duane has been a huge influence on their work. But when I look at their work, it looks nothing at all like his. This is true of me too.
So influence doesn’t mean that our work starts to look like his but that seeing it alters and expands notions of how a photograph can work. Many photographers start by making pictures of interesting things and get stuck there. Duane doesn’t do that. He makes pictures of the how things work in and on the mind.
Although ideas and constructs are usually the province of the left cerebral hemisphere, I wouldn’t call his work conceptual or left-brained at all. He doesn’t stay explicate an idea, he carries it directly into the right hemisphere and finds a way to bring it alive as a perception, not a construct. His work is very esthetic, his sense of light and composition are just beautiful. He makes lovely frames. But the work goes much further than that.
A great illustration of the way this works is this pieces of Duane’s. It’s called It Is No Accident That You Are Reading This and it was one of the sequences from that film. I could describe it, but better that you see it, here.
If your own photography seems a little unsatisfying, seems to be running up against some kind of invisible blockage, listening to this could help to loosen the conceptual web that is constricting it. If, on the other hand, you feel that your photographic investigations are going just the way you want them to…then you could really stand to listen to this. Something might come of it.
Sean Kernan is an internationally recognized photographer, writer, and teacher.