Tuesday, 3 July 2012

How do you photograph lust?

"But now the money’s there and now that it’s there, we have the cult of, I call it the museum photograph. I did a book called “Foto Follies,” or “How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank.” It’s a satire, and I meant – I said I’d never trust any photograph that’s so big it can only fit into a museum because now that’s not about photography anymore, it’s about a product, it’s about when you walk in you see a, you know, a ten-foot Gursky photograph of a lobby of a hotel in Tokyo. I mean, please, you know, so – but that looks like what art looks like and that’s why it’s so popular and it’s another product nowadays. Well, people of my generation who became photographers in the late fifties, early sixties, there were no rewards in photography. There were no museum shows. Maybe MOMA would show something or Chicago. There were no galleries. Nobody bought photographs. You could buy an Ansel Adams print for $5.00 at the back of the Limelight Coffee Shop in the Village. So you entered photography because of the passion for the film – for the field. And if you became famous, it was a very small fame, you know. But nowadays that photography has become officially an art, it used to be photography was all about the passion for photography but never about money; now it’s all about money and not about photography anymore, now that we have $300,000 photographs and million dollar photographs. And I felt that the photography could never be as corrupt as the art world because the money was never there. And I hate the word art. You know, we should call it Scrabble or something. We should invent a whole new word for it. No, but it really doesn’t matter. What really matters is that the person expresses his passion or his anger or – And no matter how you do it, it really doesn’t matter. But I said an eight-by-ten photograph of a Robert Frank picture actually could be quite heroic but an eight-by-ten foot Gursky picture of a parking lot in California someplace, that’s just a billboard with pretensions. You know, it’s just ridiculous." Duane Michals *

Looking at Duane Michals work alongside Thomas Struth is not a very easy thing to do. I am moved by most of what I see of Michals' work, I can "see" what it is he is trying (succeeding) to do, and setting that beside Struth's work which just leaves me cold and asking, apparently stupid questions.
Sticking with Struth I can find no emotional connection whatsoever with his work. I look at how impressive the scale of his work is, the book that I bought has some absolutely glorious renditions of his prints. It is a big book. The prints are printed large on the page, across the pages - double spread, the paper, the colours are some of the best I have seen in a photo-book; but then I noticed something about these prints (I noticed quite a few things, but I'll come back to them later), I noticed that what I was looking at were very small, almost miniatures of the finished articles. Some of these prints are, in "real-life" very large. The "family" series one of two series' that Struth claims to be "on-going" has the prints over 2 metres, that mean that these people are probably life size (maybe bigger). Then I looked at more and I found other prints are almost twice THAT size at over eleven feet, and I wonder why there is a need to go that far. I have Michals' words ringing in my ear - literally as I've just listened to him - but I don't want to believe Michals just because I've just read and listened to him, and been moved by his work. Struth is a modern day photographic icon - his work is revered, there must be something there, surely I am missing something. He studied in Dusseldorf under the Bechers, his is a strong pedigree, not for him the found talent in a borrowed camera for a holiday trip to Russia. Struth's work has been fetishsized across the planet, on a scale to match his imagination. So why don't I get it?

Struth's work seems surprisingly haphazard, especially in his architectural work. Spending what must have been a small fortune on camera gear that would ensure the vertical and horizontals he composed in his ground glass to be true; did he intentionally transgress this capability because he could? Did he purposely not put straightforward compositional lines at the frame edge where they would have anchored shots impying as much weight as his subject because he wanted to the viewer to question the reason why they weren't there? I can't say I understand his progression, but his earlier "street" shots have, for me, a stronger harmony of composition than his later ones where, for his own reason which escapes me, he seems to deliberately place objects (subjects) in the frame that puts the image out of kilter. Is he doing this because he can or because he couldn't be bothered - I suppose because he is a famous and well regarded photographer he did it on purpose.

These are photographs that, because of their size, can only be viewed in museums or large galleries and are therefore held hostage to be compared to other pieces of two dimensional art that have the same scale, and yet they seem to me to need a central attention to the detail of representation that Struth seems either to deliberately subvert or care less about. For this viewer it isn't ironic, it isn't amusing and it is so far removed from my notion of reality as to render it worthless to me. I fully accept that the concept has probably passed me by, or that I do not have the visual grammar to comprehend the lexicon Struth sets.

Michals' posed the titular question in an interview, one of many interviews that he has done, when he was trying to elucidate his motivations for image creation. "Don't try and photograph what you see, photograph what's in your mind" is a rough translation of what Michal's motivations are. He has repeatedly given the example of (I paraphrase) "when you a picture of a person crying, you register grief, but how do you know what that person is feeling, people continually project their own emotions onto other people". It is Michals' intent to portray his own mind, what's on it, what's in it.

A lot has been said about Michals' strive for identity, the americanisation of the family name, his naming after the son of his mother's employer, his sexual identity, his loss of Christian faith, but I think that this internal and external confusion of identity has helped his photographic imagery become much more straightforward to understand, to grapple with, to come to terms with. The use of sets of images that develop a narrative theme are very common in his work, Sets of up to a dozen or so images that tell a story, sometimes they might be morality tales, sometimes allegorical tales and the use of text, usually in his own manuscript. These sets of images aren't set to deliver a solipsistic view, something that might be levelled at Struth, rather Michal's seems to tell what's on his mind and invite, through the sheer honesty of the imagery, our own commentary - which may or may not be in line with his view.

I have not been able to locate Michal's to ask his permission to show his images, but I will try and describe a series of eight photographs that would not be far away from the centre of his oeuvre. There is one scene, a room with a bed, Large portrait shaped windows.

Shot 1: On the bed is a woman, she appears asleep, recumbent, at complete rest. Entering the scene, apparently from the window frame right is an angel - we know he is an angel as he is naked and he has wings. The angel approaches the bed.

Shot 2: The angel mounts the bed, waking the woman who appears confused, her hand goes to forehead. The direcion of travel for the angel is towards her - he is now on the bed looming over her body.

Shot 3: The woman raises her upper body in supplication to the angel. The angel reaches to her (covered) breast and cradles her face with his other hand. This one of the few images in this series with  no blur.

Shot 4; The woman lays back and opens her gown for the angel to enter, she opens her legs and the angel moves in. The angel is in movement.

Shot 5: No movement, it is a still shot. The couple are, seemingly, in intercourse.

Shot 6: Intercourse is over. The woman lies back in a pose of grace, the angel is wrought in pain, his wings have disappeared, he is now completely naked denuded of of wings and recoiling from his sin.

Shot 7: The woman stays lying on the bed and in a state of bliss, but the angel is now no more, he is clothed; his original sin has delivered him to the mortal world. He sits in state of turmoil away from the woman.

Shot 8: The woman stays in the same place both literally and metaphysically whilst the angel is seen to be leaving the scene of his sin.

It is not that this story is simple, I don't think it is that simple, it is rather that the delivery of the story is made completely accessible to the viewer. Michals has made the narrative, of a difficult concept with many themes, simple, straightforward, succinct. The vernacular that Michals developed for his work is one that is starkly in contrast to the "sophisticated/dense" narrative that Struth utlises. A visceral response to Michals' work that seems to this viewer absent from the work of the Dusseldorf graduate, which will keep me looking at those blurred, emotionally charged photographs devoid of the dense, impenetrable linguistic gymnastics that I can't comprehend yet. Those super sharp and super sized photographs that appear to me to at the opposite end of a spectrum of image making that I could ever hope to enter and that leave me wondering about whether the effort to understand is worth it.

*The above is a transcript (slightly edited) from this interview:Interview And an interview on Youtube here which provides sight as well as sound


  1. Fascinating to read John. First thought that came to mind was that Struth somehow puts everything in front of my eyes so that all I can do is use them to search for every detail in the image. I can't find him in there though. Michals engages my eyes, intellect and imagination as if he is standing beside me saying, "Look at this. What do you think?"
    It made me think of the Bauhaus somehow and Peterhans's emphasis on photography as science rather than art.

    PS You've done it to me - I've given in and ordered a book on Michals!


    1. Sorry to impact the expenses Catherine! I'm really unsure about Struth, he is venerated but I can't fathom his conceptual motivations for the life of me yet. I will come back to his work - if for no other reason the book that I bought was expensive! Thanks again.