Photographing The Invisible: Things are Queer by Duane Michals (1973)

“I don’t trust reality. So all of the writing on and painting on the photographs is born out of the frustration to express what you do not see” - Duane Michals

“I think photographs should be provocative and not tell you what you already know. It takes no great powers or magic to reproduce somebody’s face in a photograph. The magic is in seeing people in new ways.”

—Duane Michals


‘Things are Queer’ by Duane Michals


Through image sequences, framing, multiple exposures, scale and overlaying handwritten messages and pigment, American artist Duane Michals (born 1932) has surprised and delighted us through his photographs.

In 1973, he created this series of nine photographs in which we move to an unexpected level of reality with each new image. Surreal , familiar and hard to understand, the work challenges the perception of photographed reality.



My pictures are more about questions, not about answers.”

– Duane Michals


“I’m not interested in what something looks like, I want to know what it feels like.”

– Duane Michals


“Who gives a fuck about what he had for breakfast? These are stylistic ticks. The digital has changed the paradigms of photography. I had an opening in Boston and this woman had a little camera with her and kept exclaiming, ‘Everything is a photograph!’ That’s the problem. The bar has been lowered so much in photography now…”

“Photographers tend not to photograph what they can’t see, which is the very reason one should try to attempt it. Otherwise we’re going to go on forever just photographing more faces and more rooms and more places. Photography has to transcend description. It has to go beyond description to bring insight into the subject, or reveal the subject, not as it looks, but how does it feel?”.

“I don’t trust reality. So all of the writing on and painting on the photographs is born out of the frustration to express what you do not see.”

– Duane Michals


‘Things are Queer’ by Duane Michals

‘Things are Queer’ by Duane Michals


In 2015, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presented Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals, the first major U.S. retrospective of the artist’s work in 20 years:

Raised in a steelworking family outside of Pittsburgh, Michals has explored familial and personal identity as a recurring theme. In a rarely exhibited 30-photograph sequence titled The House I Once Called Home (2003), the artist explores the abandoned three-story brick house where he spent his childhood. Each image is paired with poetic verse of remembrance and reflection to create an intimate photographic memoir and metaphysical scrapbook. Recent photographs are superimposed on historic images as the series toggles through time, space and memory. The home’s current dilapidated state contrasts with reveries of a formerly bustling family home and a rumination on the passage of time and the inevitable succession of generations.

Michals’ lifelong adventure with photography began on a trip to Russia in 1958. Borrowing a camera from a friend, he discovered a way to interact with people and tell stories. Shortly thereafter, Michals moved to New York City where he supported himself through work as a commercial photographer for Vogue, Esquire and Life magazines and took portraits of notable artists including Meryl Streep, Sting and Willem de Kooning. In the 1960s, Michals began his earliest experimental narrative sequences that were exhibited in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The curator of the show, William Burback, noted that “the mysterious situations Michals invents are posed and theatrical. Yet, they are so common to the urban condition that we have the illusion of remembering scenes and events experienced for the first time.” Later he began adding text to his photographs such as This Photograph Is My Proof (from 1974), which allowed him to tell stories and address feelings that could not be fully explored by photography alone.

Rather than take cues from his photographic contemporaries, Michals considers surrealist painters such as René Magritte, Balthus and Giorgio de Chirico to be his artistic heroes. Scratching out universal truths from the mystery of human experience, Michals has explained that his works are, “about questions, they are not about answers.” Over the decades, he has been at the forefront of exploring sexual identity and the struggles for gay rights. In his 1976 work, The Unfortunate Man, a model arches his back in anguish while the accompanying text reads: The unfortunate man could not touch the one he loved. It was declared illegal by the law. Slowly his fingers became his toes and his hands gradually became feet. He wore shoes on his hands to disguise his pain. It never occurs to him to break the law.

One of the constants of Michals’ career – from his classic narrative sequences to his more recent series of hand-painted tintypes – has been his preference for intimately scaled images with tactile surface treatments. These works, with their universal themes of memory, dreams, desire and mortality, draw the viewer closer and insist on their full engagement at an emotional level. Commenting on why Michals includes handwritten text on his images, he has said: “I love the intimacy of the hand. It’s like listening to someone speaking.”



Via: Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh and DC Moore Gallery.

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