Duane Michals: Empty New York @DC Moore

JTF (just the facts): A total of 30 black and white photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against grey walls in a small side room gallery space. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made c. 1964. Physical sizes range from roughly 5×7 to 8×10, and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back in the early 1960s, Duane Michals was a young photographer living in New York, and he did what all young photographers do – he discovered the work of a past master and tried, at least for a moment or two, to see the world though those esteemed eyes. The object of Michals’ photographic crush was Eugène Atget, and this show gathers together a previously unseen body of work Michals made in those early years while under the disembodied influence of the 19th century French photographer. Taken in the deserted early morning streets of New York, the pictures capture the city in a state of still emptiness, like a theater stage ready for the bustling action to begin.

Knowing what we know about what would come soon after in Michals’ photographic career (namely an investigation of images in sequence and series, often exploring connections, encounters, dreams, and memories), these pictures feel like the first image in a yet to be constructed Michals narrative. The small format is familiar, as is the hand scrawled text in the margin. What’s different is a kind of pregnant tension-filled silence, where a booth in a diner stands empty or a subway car rattles along without riders.

Given that Michals was channeling Atget, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of looks down deserted streets and documents of storefront windows and architectural details. But it’s when Michals’ personality starts to show through the veil of Atget that the pictures become more enigmatic. What will happen next in the empty taxi cab or the echoing barber shop? Who will come out of the parked bus or up the escalator? Will there be a chance encounter, a shimmer of lost love, or the spectral touch of death? These are the enigmatic, often spiritual stories that Michals would go on to tell in subsequent years.

What this show does best is make explicit the process of artistic borrowing and transformation that helps an artist ultimately find his or her own voice. Walking the quiet morning streets of the city with Atget stuck in his brain, Michals followed in his footsteps until the path started to diverge and new ideas began to present themselves; these then became the jumping off point for wholly original Michalsian investigations. What we have on display here are the seeds, the ones that later sprouted into the photographer’s mature style, where we can see the faint beginnings of a vision coming into its own.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $9500 each. Michals’ work is generally available in the secondary markets, with recent prices for single images/multi-image series ranging from roughly $1000 to $34000.

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Read more about: Duane Michals, DC Moore Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Insightful review.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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