Illusions of the Photographer: Duane Michals at the Morgan @Morgan Library

JTF (just the facts): A total of 37 photographic works, each comprising between one and thirteen photographs (111 photographs in total, including 2 tintypes with hand applied oil paint, 10 chromogenic prints, and 99 gelatin silver prints); one artist’s journal; one digital slide show; and three short films; made by the artist between 1960 and 2019.

The show also features 24 works by other photographers as follows:

  • Anonymous, Double exposure of children’s tea party, ca. 1930s, commercially processed gelatin silver print with deckle edge; traces of green album paper on verso
  • Groupe de Spiritualisme Expérimental Fiat-Lux, Spirit Photograph, 1938, gelatin silver print
  • Anonymous, Woman stands beside a moose head, ca. 1880-1920, commercially processed gelatin silver print mounted on cardboard
  • Anonymous, The photographer’s bare foot before the ocean, commercially processed gelatin silver print with white border
  • Anonymous, Bust portrait of a man, inscribed “$5000 REWARD,” commercially processed gelatin silver print mounted on black album paper
  • Anonymous, View of the constellation Cassiopeiaca, 1970s, commercially processed gelatin silver print with white border
  • Anonymous, Ten people poke their heads through a white sheet, commercially processed gelatin silver print with white border
  • Anonymous, Five people in a park, inscribed: “God’s gift to Women,” commercially processed gelatin silver print with white border mounted on black album paper
  • Anonymous, Man jumps on a sidewalk, commercially processed gelatin silver print with a white border
  • Anonymous, Man in uniform bends over to feed chicks, commercially processed gelatin silver print
  • Anonymous, Three soldiers stand on trunks in a military camp, commercially processed gelatin silver print with white border
  • Anonymous, Soldier blows a bugle before a brick wall, ca. 1945, commercially processed gelatin silver print with white border and deckled edge
  • Anonymous, Double exposure of two soldiers facing each other, ca. 1955, commercially processed gelatin silver print with white deckled border
  • Anonymous, Double exposure of a standing man and a seated woman, commercially processed gelatin silver print with white border
  • Anonymous for the Christy Walsh Syndicate, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, 1926, gelatin silver print
  • Eugène Atget (1857 – 1927), Cour de Rouen, 1898, albumen print
  • Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832 –1898), Alice Liddell (profile), Oxford, England, Summer 1858, albumen print
  • John F. Collins (1888 – 1990), Multiple Self-Portrait, 1935, gelatin silver print
  • Louis Faurer (1916-2001), Penn Station Lovers, 1946-47, printed ca. 1981, gelatin silver print
  • Herbert Matter (1907-1984), Alexander Calder hanging mobile in motion, 1936, gelatin silver print with additions by hand
  • Hans Namuth, Joseph Cornell in his backyard, Utopia Parkway, New York, gelatin silver print, 1969
  • Irving Penn, Giorgio de Chirico, Rome, 1944 (negative), 1946-47 (print), gelatin silver print on paper mounted to cardstock
  • Wallace Studio, Manchester, New Hampshire, Untitled (Mirror), ca. 1880s, cabinet card with rounded corners
  • Robert Wiles, Evelyn Francis McHale, May 1, 1947, gelatin silver print

In addition to photographic works, the exhibition includes 69 items in other media from the Morgan’s holdings or the artist’s personal collection, among them prints; drawings in ink, watercolor, gouache, and pencil; paintings on paper; illustrated books; cartoonists’ original artworks; and such objects as a hat box in the shape of a top hat, a memorial wreath, and a paper boat.

In conjunction with the show, the Morgan Library & Museum has published a companion catalog (here, 87 pages with color reproductions,  9 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches, $24.95 softcover) with an interview by Joel Smith with Duane Michals.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the 1960s, self-taught photographer Duane Michals broke from the prevailing conventions of fine art photography and photojournalism—in particular, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the decisive moment—to pursue a different kind of picture making. He began to use handwritten captions, double exposures, and staged narrative sequences to address experiences and concepts not conveyable by a single camera image.

A 1964 picture of a deserted bar titled There Are Things Here Not Seen in This Photograph, for example, features a hand-lettered inscription that reads: “My shirt was wet with perspiration. The beer tasted good, but I was still thirsty. Some drunk was talking to another drunk about Nixon. I watched a roach walk slowly along the edge of a barstool. On the jukebox, Glen Campbell began to sing about “Southern Nights,” I had to go to the men’s room. A derelict was walking toward me to ask for money. It was time to leave.”

The photograph appears at the beginning of the marvelous survey show “Illusions of the Photographer: Duane Michals at the Morgan,” which was organized by Michals and the Morgan’s photography curator, Joel Smith. The exhibition, which spans six decades of the octogenarian artist’s career, interweaves his photographs with items (among them a paper boat folded by Nathaniel Hawthorne and a quill pen once owned by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) he has selected from the Morgan’s holdings. It is divided into ten sections—each marked by a different wall color—including “Time,” “Nature,” and “Illusion.”

A section entitled “Theater” considers inhabited space, pairing Michals’s six-panel work Chance Meeting (1970), in which two men passing one another on a narrow sidewalk each stop and look back before continuing on, with N. Institoris’s 19th-century drawing of a mazelike prison interior, and a Eugène Atget picture of an empty Paris street from 1898. In “Love and Desire” Egon Schiele’s 1914 drawing of an embracing couple hangs near Michals’s poignant photograph A Letter from My Father (1960), in which the artist asks where his father might have hidden his affection. And on the dark blue walls of “Death” Robert Wiles’s famous photograph Evelyn Francis McHale (1947), of a woman, who having jumped to her death, lies enfolded in the crumpled metal of a car’s roof, joins Michals’s surrealistic narrative sequence The Spirit Leaves the Body (1968) showing a shadowy figure sitting up and walking away from its mortal remains.

“Image and Word” traces Michals’s literary influences though William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (including A Song of Liberty) (1790), Monsieur Pencil, a 1840 lithograph by the first comic strip artist, Rodolphe Topffer; drawings for captions submitted to the New Yorker, Michals’s annotated series of photographs of Pittsburgh (like Andy Warhol, Michals is a Pittsburgh native), and the text piece Shopping with My Mother (1978), its extended caption leading, in roundabout fashion, to Michals’s account of his break with organized religion.

“Immortality” features, along with a cast-metal memorial wreath from Pierpont Morgan’s funeral, a fine selection of Michals’s celebrity portraits. They include a 1958 picture of Warhol with his face hidden in his hands, a 1965 Magritte-like, double-exposed image of Rene Magritte at his easel, and a photograph of an extremely young David Hemmings, who played a London fashion photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up.

The show begins and ends in a foyer outside the gallery, where selections from early and recent works play on a monitor flanked by comfortable sofas. The program alternates between the short, vaudevillian films that the artist has been making with cinematographer Josiah Cuneo since 2015, and slide shows of photographs from Michals’s 1964–65 series of photographs, “Empty New York.” Inspired by an encounter with Atget’s photographs of Paris, and reminiscent of the pictures of Walker Evans, the “Empty New York.” images, taken on early morning walks through a still sleeping city, anticipate many of Michals’s later motifs: the street or store as theatrical space, clothing as a stand-in for the body, the male figure as focus of homoerotic desire, the pleasures of signage, and the magic of light and reflection. The films, meanwhile, carry to their logical conclusion the cinematic methods behind Michals’s first 60 years of photographic work.

Though Michals is widely credited for bringing storytelling as a device into contemporary photography, as well as for his early introduction of specifically queer narratives into the mainstream artistic discourse, his work has not always received positive attention. On entering the artist’s first show in 1963, Garry Winogrand famously remarked, “This isn’t photography,” before walking out, while certain mainstream critics have variously found Michals’s work too jokey, too saccharine or too accessible. (It’s worth noting that three of the influences Michals cites in his interview with Mr. Smith for the exhibition catalog, René Magritte, Saul Steinberg, and Giorgio de Chirico have also, at times, and for different reasons, been dismissed as artists.)

But regardless of how one feels about Michals’s work, this is a nearly perfect show, a distillation, down to its colored walls, of the artist’s singular and consistent vision. Though modest in size, it’s a blockbuster.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, the are of course no posted prices. Duane Michals is represented by DC Moore Gallery in New York (here). Michals’s 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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