Be amazed! Amaze yourself! The wonderful world of Duane Michals


Joseph Cornell, Mr. Utopia Parkway. There he was. Unexpectedly. Or rather: someone who looked like the ghost of Joseph Cornell. Hanging on a wall in the Musée de la Photographie in Charleroi. Or how my belated visit to the exquisite Duane Michals-exhibition turned out to be one full of surprises.

‘I know how cars look. I know how trees look. I think photographers should show me what I can’t see.’ Just Google the words Duane Michals and you’ll come across plenty of these quotes. Witty and to the point. Because they tell you why the pictures of this 77-year-old American, and completely self-taught photographer, are pictures of a different kind.

Duane Michals 'Chance meeting'Michals is interested in the things he can’t capture with a camera. He is greatly influenced by the surrealists, and his pictures – black and white, mostly – often have a dreamlike, poetic quality. They are naive, in the sense that they look like old-fashioned photographs. The effects he applies are those of early photographers. But they are not childish, because Michals often talks about ‘big’ themes: death, love, family, spirituality. Angels (with wings) occur. He stages his own death. Jesus gets mugged and killed.

'There are things here not seen in this photograph' (click to enlarge)

‘I see most photographers as newspaper reporters and myself as a short story writer’. That explains why Michals specializes in ‘sequences’: series of pictures telling a story. Another of his peculiarities is that he always scribbles the title, or some text-lines on his photo’s. Sometimes even complete poems. By doing so he succeeds in what he wants to accomplish: to take a picture of something more than just what is in front of the camera. ‘If you look at my photo’s, you look at my thoughts’, is one of his quotes.

To me the exhibition in the beautiful Musée de la Photographie was a real treat. It’s the sort of show that makes you want to know much more about an artist. And so I read afterwards, for instance, that Michals is the guy who shot the pictures for the cover of The Police-album Synchronicity.

He has these little odd tricks that are completely ‘his’, but Michals sure is good in simple portraits too, as the beautiful photo’s of Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Willem de Kooning, Giorgio de Chirico and Joseph Cornell prove. It’s just his later work, in colour, that I’m not that fond of. He did a persiflage of Cindy Sherman, for instance, that looked rather pointlessly vitriolic to me.

Nevertheless, go to Charleroi. Hurry. Because the exhibition closes on September 13. And do go on a summer’s day: the museum has a lovely café, with a nice and quiet terrace, overlooking a big garden.

‘Be amazed! Amaze yourself! Amaze others. Tell us something we don’t know.’ (Duane Michals)

photo credits: Duane Michals, ‘Joseph Cornell’ (1970), ‘Chance meeting’ (1970, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery), ‘There are things here not seen in this photograph (1997, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery)

Postscript on November 20, 2014: A Duane Michals retrospective is currently on view at Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh), through February 16, 2015. Info here. It will travel to Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, March 15-June 21). Info here. You’ll find a recent New York Times interview here.


One Response to “Be amazed! Amaze yourself! The wonderful world of Duane Michals”

  1. anitamohan Says:

    Wow, this sounds like a beautiful exhibit- I’ll check this photographer out- too bad I read this post late! Thanks for talking about it. -Anita (

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