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ART : Picture Imperfect : For maverick Duane Michals, a photo is worth far less than a thousand words when the questions are about the very meaning of truth

March 14, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Duane Michals doesn't think much of Postmodern photography. Musing on this art-world "ism," along with just about every other topic under the sun, the artist reels off the roll call of the current crop of photo stars and dismisses them all with a wave of the hand.

"For me art is about passion, and I don't see any passion in most of the work being done today," says Michals, who has an exhibition of new photographs on view at the Fahey Klein Gallery through April 17. "It's too intellectual and cerebral--I mean, I read the things written about this stuff and all I can say is 'so what?' I don't have time for that nonsense."

Michals may not like the emotionally detached stance of many of today's artists who use photography in their work, but he agrees with them on one crucial point--like them, he believes the photographic image is essentially a lie.

"The question of truth is forever in the air, and people look for it with particular fervor in art," the 61-year-old artist observes during a conversation in his Manhattan apartment. "Photography does deal with 'truth' or a kind of superficial reality better than any of the other arts, but it never questions the nature of reality--it simply reproduces reality. And what good is that when the things of real value in life are invisible?

"There's a great presumptuousness in the way photographers present life, which is something most of us know next to nothing about," he adds, speaking with an earnest intensity that colors everything he says. "We don't know anything about what anybody else feels. Even in the deepest love relationship--when lovers say 'I love you' to each other--we don't really know what we're saying, because language isn't equal to the complexity of human emotions."

In attempting to shed some light on the most deeply hidden aspects of human experience, Michals has gone to great lengths to circumvent the limitations of language and the camera, and he has been praised and lambasted for the unorthodox style he has developed in that pursuit.

He first violated the rules governing "pure" photography in 1966 when he began staging abbreviated morality plays exploring themes of death, sexual identity and loneliness, which he photographed in sequential images ranging from five to 15 in number. These early works were first shown two years later at the Underground Gallery in New York and the Art Institute in Chicago.

Eight years later Michals began elaborating on the scenes depicted in his images by inscribing text in a crude scribble directly onto his prints. In a 1975 group portrait of his family titled "A Letter From My Father," for instance, the accompanying text explains that Michals' father had promised to send him a "special letter" whose contents were never divulged. "I know what I hoped would be in the letter," the text continues. "I wanted him to tell me where he had hidden his affections. But then he died, and the letter never did arrive. And I never found that place where he had hidden his love."

At the time Michals first began adding text to his images this stylistic innovation was tantamount to sacrilege, as photography was deep in the throes of the ideology promoted by the then-director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, who espoused a style that was essentially an extension of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's notion of the "decisive moment."

Like Cartier-Bresson, Szarkowski was vehemently opposed to any sort of darkroom revision and believed that a good photograph was one that was shot at precisely the right moment so that it resonated with profound meaning beyond the action shown in the image. In direct opposition to that idea, Michals believes that an image functions as little more than a vague clue as to the complexity of human experience, and that a picture in fact tells us precious little.

"John Szarkowski was a real drag on photography because he was very conservative, and his idea of high-art photography was reportage of the sort Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand did--anything else, according to him, was not photography," Michals says.

"I didn't come to photography until I was 28 and never went to photography school so I had no knowledge of any of that--if I had I never would have attempted to be a photographer, because the odds against being successful in those terms are huge. I was completely self-taught and learned everything on the job, and that was a blessing because it allowed me to find my own way creatively."

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