Photographer Duane Michals on making visible that which is invisible

In the early 1950s, the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote that photography is a medium about the «decisive moment,» that critical fraction of a second when subject and form merge to the fullest expression. In his opinion, a good photograph was one that managed to capture that split second. For American photographer Duane Michals, capturing that moment in a still image has not been enough. In the mid-1960s, when he first exhibited his work, he presented photographs in sequences, successive images that all together told a story. This was the closest that photography could get to cinema and the moving picture. «I am interested in photographs after and before the decisive moment. The decisive moment is the most legitimate foundation of photography. I simply expanded it to the moments before and after. I am not wedded to still photography at all and because I did not study photography I was never obliged to go by the rules of photography,» Michals told Kathimerini English Edition. Michals was visiting Thessaloniki for the opening of his exhibition at the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography. Titled «Time is Not Now,» it is a large retrospective of his work, organized by the museum and curated by Enrica Vigano on the occasion of this year’s PhotoBiennale in Thessaloniki, the major photography festival that opened a couple of weeks ago on the theme of time. It is a notion that Michals has constantly explored, seeking to make some sense of its elusive character. By presenting his photographs in sequences, Michals highlights the fluidity of time. The subject of his work also addresses time itself: A photograph from 1978 shows an old man looking at his portrait as a younger man. «When he was young he could not imagine being old. Now that he is old he cannot remember ever having been young,» one reads in the text that accompanies the image. Merging text and image into a single work is another invention of the photographer, a prevalent characteristic in his work. Clearly of a literary bent, Michals himself writes the texts – many of them quite lengthy – and prints them in his own handwriting as captions to the image. The text is both an image and an explanation of the image. «It is a symbiotic relationship. I think that both writing and photography create together a new kind of event that neither one would by itself,» Michals said. Because of the text, the viewer is most likely to read the image in the mode intended by the artist. «I try to control what the viewer experiences, much in the same way that a playwright controls what the viewer sees in the theater.» The stories narrated are schematic. It is not the events that count but the feelings evoked, the sense of nostalgia, of time gone by, and thoughts about the grander, existential issues. Michals is not interested in documenting an event but in making visual «that which is invisible.» In the sequence «A Young Girl’s Dream,» a woman is seen sleeping on a couch. A young man enters the room and touches her on the breast. When she awakes, she smiles and touches herself in the same place. In the Cavafy series, homoerotic love is celebrated as an inspiration for art. In «The Poet Decorates his Muse with Verse» from the same series, the poet adorns the body of a young man with the sheets on which he has written his poems. «The thing about photography is that it fails dramatically when it comes to anything that is not visible. But we live in our feelings, we live in our passions. When somebody you love walks out on you, you can be destroyed. How do I take that and make something visible out of it?» Michals asks. Intrigued by metaphysics, he has produced a series which deals with death and what happens after life. In «Death Comes to the Old Lady,» the body of an elderly woman is depicted – through the technique of full exposure – as if breaking up into space, depicting the moment of death. In «The Human Condition,» a man in the subway begins to disintegrate into light and takes the shape of a galaxy. Mystery, the subconscious and the metaphysical are prevalent in his work. So is the influence of surrealism. Michals mentions Giorgio de Chirico, Rene Magritte and Balthus as the three artists that have had the strongest impact on his work. He photographed all of them; the portraits are part of a series that Michals made of renowned artists, among them Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning, Tennessee Williams and Joseph Cornell. The novels of Jorge Luis Borges are another major source of inspiration. «All of those artists who have had an influence on my work deal with the realm of metaphysical implication. They all play with riddles, mind games. No photographer did that, they told you what you already know,» said Michals, who mentioned Andre Kertesz, Andre Breton and Robert Frank among his favorite photographers. «I love wit, imagination, intimacy and a sense of wonder,» says Michals. «I look at my work as a journal, I love the intimacy of handwriting. I do small photographs because I believe the more intimate an idea the less you need to do the fashionable, 8-foot photography that is so current. This is not photography, it is wall decoration. One of my aphorisms is not to trust a photograph which is so large it can only fit in a museum,» Michals said. Critical and sarcastic on the genre of «art photography,» Michals has produced an entire series that mocks the art system. It pokes fun at the fashionable photography that has entered contemporary art galleries, a genre which is supposed to belong to the visual arts rather than photography. «It is very important for visual artists not to call themselves photographers because if, for example, a Cindy Sherman work is called a photo sequence, it is worth a fraction of what it would if it was labeled conceptual art,» says Michals. In his book «How Photography Lost its Virginity on the Way to the Bank,» Sherrie Levine, Andreas Gursky and Wolfgang Tillmans are some of the artists Michals attacks. «To become an artist you have to transcend documentation and bring insight to the subject. Nowadays, there is a whole plague of photographers taking pictures of people just standing there, staring at you, which I think is totally ridiculous,» says Michals. «It was the advent of the gallery system and museums and the invention of the market that bred this category. When paintings became too expensive, something else had to be invented to meet the demand of the art market. When a photo was priced at 50-100,000 it became a commodity and ceased to be a photograph.» For Michals, photography must retain its contemplative nature. To qualify as art, it must be inventive, witty and imaginative. It must contain allusion and subtle meaning. It must transcend reality and tackle the bigger issues in life. «Time is Not Now,» Thessaloniki Museum of Photography (Old Port, 2310.566.716) through June 8.