Investigating photography. Duane Michals’ narrative shots.

by Lorenza Zampa

Duane Michals, Heisenberg's Magic Mirror of Uncertainity, 1998, 1998 / Courtesy MEF - Museo Ettore Fico, Turin

A situationist, precise, resourceful, innovative; rebellious, passionate, daring to document or more simply a lucky “seeker”: this is the profile of the good photographer or the characteristics one must have to aspire to being one, then it would be enough to leave the house well equipped and just wait for the world to enfold with its outstretched arms, offering interesting ideas onto which one could rest the gaze on, even before the mind. A lot of photography seems to have been produced and appreciated precisely thanks to the virtue of this imitative principle, which would make the surrounding reality appear as an incredibly suggestive place, and the human eye as a white space where to record the “impressions” that in the best of cases become “interpretations” -, a place inside a place, reactive like an effervescent tablet dissolving in water.  

But not everyone aspires to be like Steve McCurry, or Letizia Battaglia, or Salgado, or Doisneau, just to name a few. In fact, it may happen that they consider themselves more important than all those renowned and continuous images that wander in the mind, waiting to come out and to find a meaningful visual narrative and content almost as important as the idea itself, which came simultaneously. This is what happens in the aesthetics of Duane Michals, an American photographer, who is now over 80 years old, and who had the merit of freeing photography from the hindrance of having to be a linear story, faithful to concrete reality, giving us instead photographic sequences that are small narratives, emotional and cosmic, with titles and captions that have an eschatological value. Above all, Michals did not impose his vision of the world on us but sought to show how complicated, as well as fascinating, investigating the mystery of the feelings whether they belong to oneself or to others. Photography becomes a humble but profound act of generosity that frees itself from a purely documentary character. In a delightful video interview from 1980 (Visions and Images: Duane Michals), the photographer, with the proverbial positivity that belongs to his fellows, clarifies what the essence of a good photograph is, and that the mind is what is most involved in its realization. The mind is what builds the structure of the well-defined questions on the meaning of existence. In this regard we should mention photographs such as “The human condition” (1969), “The fallen angel” (1968), “Chance meeting” (1972), “Letter from my father” (1975), “Heisenberg’s magic mirror of uncertainty” (1998), “Things are queer” (1973) and “Boogeyman” (1972), just to list some that even after visceral scrutiny can still leave questions unsolved. In fact, after denying of being «reportage person» who is just waiting to stumble on some magnificent or fortuitous event, he says that “the great wonder is that each of us has its own validity, its mysteries and it is the sharing of these gifts what really makes an artists». Some people define it as surrealist photography. Or a photography where the inner reality really happens in the outside world, and what is returned to us is a set of interweaving visions and reflections, a labyrinthine succession of pieces of infinity, a bit like in Gilbert Garcin, another great living photographer. The sequence of images to which Michals is most closely linked is “I build a pyramid” (1978), in which he knows how to express all the “creative potential of mistakes”, as he himself said. What appears in the six shots that make up the photographic narration is Duane himself, funny and obstinate: he is not far from the majestic pyramids of Giza, and we can see him positioning, almost stacking them on the sandy ground, some rough stones, which will eventually form a small imperfect pyramid, “bigger than the others if looked at from the right point of view”, as the photographer himself says jokingly. 

“We must fill our ears, our eyes of all of us with things that are at the beginning of a great dream. Someone must shout that we will build the pyramids, it doesn’t matter if we don’t build them, we have to nourish the desire”, as said by Domenico, the old madman of the film Nostalghia by Tarkowskij (1983), a characther who shares with Michals the obstinate courage to give importance not to what we see but to what we imagine can happen.