Drew Snyder, A Boy in Leningrad (after Duane Michals), 2005.
Oil on Canvas, 36 x 42 in.
Oil on Canvas, 36 x 42 in.
Before last week, I actually thought Duane Michals was dead. I don't know why really, I just always thought he was dead. Perhaps it was because he looked old in his self-portraits, and those were from the 80's. So when I saw a listing by chance in CityBeat last week announcing that he was coming to the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla to give a talk, I felt like I was seeing a ghost. Just the announcement in the paper gave me this feeling of seeing someone brought back from the dead. It was a strange feeling, as if I were experiencing some kind of split reality, some parallel universe (parenthetically I happened to glimpse a Lara Croft movie on TV this morning featuring Angelina traveling through time storms to alter reality). In retrospect the sensation that the listing gave me was all too appropriate given Michals' emphasis on the imagination, the unseen, on the make-believe that permeates our daily experience.
Duane Michals for Vogue
The man who introduced him, a professor at SDSU (I don't remember his name), made the point that photography came to be during the Victorian Age, a time when science was focused on things we do not readily visually intuit (ocean currents, atoms, subterranean geological surveys, blood systems, etc). It was a nice parallel insofar as photography, contrary to initial perceptions, is a similar science. Initially, photography was conceived as an earnest and truthful means of capturing reality, escaping the obvious distortions of more traditional artistic mediums. Now, as the man making the introduction pointed out, after sufficient critical contention on this point, serious questions about the "truth" of photography have redefined the medium. Indeed, even without taking into account the volition of the artist to, say, frame a scenario in a certain way or manipulate the light, a photo at its core cannot escape its nature as an image, as a representation of something. There is no representation that is not false representation. If something is of something it is necessarily not that thing. In this way does Michals' preoccupation with the imagination and the unseen as an object of his photography certifies his authenticity as an artist.
Michals himself was hysterical. I would go see him at a comedy club just as soon as I would at the Neuroscience Institute. A wonderful 77 year old gay man who lives between New York and the country-side upstate with his partner Fred (of 50 years), he was sharp, crude, witty, and non-stop, even asking at one point, "Do I get paid by the word?". He spoke candidly about sex, religion, fantasy, the imagination, and death, which was a relief from the very intelligent but very dry introduction delivered by the SDSU professor. He was a bit contradictory, but somehow even his contradictions were consistent with the humanism of his overall talk, which in turn re-doubled his authenticity. He assured the audience that, on the cosmic time-line, our lives are nothing but a "fart" (accompanied by the appropriate sound effect). A favorite moment of mine came during the Q&A afterward when a young woman asked, cleverly, if he kept any pictures in his wallet, to which he replied with a momentarily stoic expression, "No, just condoms and viagra".