When William Henry Fox Talbot made a latticed window appear on a page of salted paper in 1835, he called his invention skiagraphy, or ‘words of light’. Photography has been the world’s most universal language almost ever since. The Pencil of Nature (1844–46), Talbot’s book on his calotype process, suggested light itself was the new medium’s author as well as its script. For a hundred years, his view prevailed: a photograph was a scientific document. A fact.
In The Illuminated Man, a 1968 photograph by Duane Michals, light tells us a lie. Its titular subject stands in a crisp Oxford under a sloping roof; where his face should be, there is only blinding white. Michals photographed a ray of sun as it struck his friend, Ted Titolo, in the tunnel beneath Manhattan’s Grand Central Station. Above the picture, he inscribed the work’s title, turning a botched portrait into an allegorical depiction of the human spirit.
If the camera sees what the eye cannot, Michals has been harnessing its quirks to expose life’s deeper truths for nearly 60 years. ‘Illusions of the Photographer’, the title of his retrospective at the Morgan Library & Museum, might refer to these very same tricks of the trade: for instance, in The Spirit Leaves the Body (1968), one of Michals’s first works to employ a sequence of images like a comic strip, double exposure allows the spectral profile of a man to emerge from his corpse, laid out on a table. ‘I am the ghost in the machine of my own story, whose plot I cannot explain,’ Michals writes in a nearby wall label. This compact exhibition includes a motley selection of books, prints, photographs, watercolours and other objects Michals has drawn from the Morgan’s collection; one of them, a 1938 ‘spirit photograph,’ shows a ‘ghost’ as it flees a woman’s body.
Michals has scrawled whimsical nursery rhymes on the gallery walls as though they were the margins of his photographs. ‘Again and again I gaze hard at my reflection in the looking glass, then blink without acknowledgment, for my stare reveals no one is there,’ reads another label, cribbed from the lengthy caption of Who Am I? (1994). That work, which appeared in the artist’s concurrent solo show at DC Moore Gallery, depicts a curly-haired Adonis as he gazes into a parabolic mirror, its distorting curve giving him a cyclops eye. At the Morgan, the quote appears beside the very same mirror, which you must face as you enter the show, watching your features stretch until they disappear.
Michals’s career as a photographer began on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1960. In one photo from that trip, a hunky blond sailor he met in Minsk stares at the camera with piercing eyes. ‘If I had never gone to Russia, if I had never learned to say “May I take your picture?” in Russian, I would never have become a photographer,’ Michals recalls in the wall text. In that encounter, he may have discovered photography’s power to both distil and animate his desire.
His most famous work on display at the Morgan, Things Are Queer (1973), refers to his homosexuality by recuperating a term that was then still a slur. Below the line, which is paraphrased from Alice in Wonderland (1865), each frame pans out slowly as though filtered through the wrong end of a telescope: a gigantic foot in a lavatory, we discover, belongs to a man of average build, trapped behind a shopfront window, who turns out to be a picture in a book read by a man in a photograph hanging in the very same lavatory. The queer experience of being out of step and scale with the straight world folds back in a Borgesian loop of self-reflection.
The more explicit Chance Meeting (1970) depicts two men as they pass each other in a sketchy alleyway. One turns to look at the other as he walks by. Several paces ahead, the other turns, too. We can’t know what happens next, but the scene is a thinly veiled depiction of cruising. (What else would two suits be doing here?) Its title recalls the much later ‘Missed Connections’ platform on Craigslist, popular for sexual solicitation, and makes me wistful for a time when it was possible to be missed.
Michals often appears wistful, too. The empty bar in There Are Things Here Not Seen in This Photograph (1977) resembles Eugène Atget’s photographs of the empty streets of fin-de-siècle Paris at dawn. The caption describes the sweaty boozers Michals shared a beer with there, and it’s hard not to imagine them dead now. Once-illuminated men, their lights gone out, in a New York that grows dimmer every day. Here but not seen: an illusion that will one day be a fact for us all.
Duane Michals, ‘Illusions of the Photographer’ was on view at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, from 25 October 2019 through 2 February 2020.
Main image: Duane Michals, Andy Warhol (detail), gelatin silver print. Courtesy: DC Moore Gallery, New York.
First published in Issue 209