Fundación MAPFRE. BARCELONA Casa Garriga i Nogués CURATOR: Enrica Viganò


Boy in Leningrad_lowPortrait_Duane Michals

he American photograph Duane Michals is the subject of a retrospective
exhibition to be shown between 31 May and 20 September this year at Fundación
MAPFRE’s Casa Garriga i Nogués exhibition space in Barcelona.
Duane Michals is one of the contemporary photographers to have most profoundly
rethought the language of photography. An artist who maintains a perfect
equilibrium between photography and poetry, he is one of the leading names of the
American avant-garde. In the 1960s Michals formulated a new approach to
photography which aimed not to document the finished act or “decisive moment” but
rather to focus on metaphysical aspects of life.
In the artist’s words: “When you look at my photographs, you are looking at my
thoughts”, a phrase that offers the key to reading Duane Michals’ oeuvre as a whole;
a body of work that perfectly corresponds to his philosophy of life, which is rarely the
case. At the outset of his career sixty years ago this phase already defined images
destined to transform the axioms of photography, revolutionising its form and
Duane Michals, Dr. Duanus’
Famous Magic Act, 1996
Copia en gelatina de plata con
texto manuscrito
27,94 × 35,56 cm
Duane Michals
© Duane Michals. Cortesía de
DC Moore Gallery, Nueva York
Born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in 1932, Michals studied art history at the
University of Denver and design in New York, where he subsequently worked in
publishing. He started to take photographs as a hobby in 1958 during a holiday in
the Soviet Union, using a borrowed camera to take portrait photographs of Russian
people which enjoyed immediate success due to their appealing simplicity. These
images launched his professional career and he went on to work for numerous
prestigious magazines. The portraits of celebrities and lesser-known subjects which
Michals undertakes for magazines, companies and private individuals are an
ongoing aspect of his commercial work, which he has continued to pursue alongside
his creative photographic activities in a reflection of his belief that earning his living
as a professional photographer has ensured the maximum degree of freedom for his
artistic work.
From its outset Michals’ work has moved in unexplored territories and ones little
understood by the photography establishment. The artist himself has stated that he
was lucky not to have studied photography and was thus ignorant of its rules, a fact
that has allowed him to move away from traditional practices and to pay no regard to
photography’s self-imposed limits.
In 1966 Michals thus started to make use of sequences in order to narrate invented
stories, for which he made his subjects pose for him before transferring the images
to photograms. Following this, in 1969 Michals began to write short texts in freehand
on the surface of his positive prints, which functioned to provide a counterpart
or a context for the images, thus refuting the idea that a photograph is worth a
thousand words. These works reveal to a greater extent his existential philosophy
and his political stance of absolute tolerance and the defence of human rights.
Since the start of his career Michals’ personality, characterised by its enormous
sensitivity and absence of pre-conceived ideas, has allowed him to go beyond the
surface of things and beyond “photographable reality” in order to grasp the nature of
being. Michals has thus moved away from photography as an instrument of visual
memory: what cannot be seen and remains hidden becomes the focus of his artistic
Duane Michals, Chance
Meeting, 1970
Secuencia de 6 copias en
gelatina de plata
12,5 × 17,80 cm
Museo Nacional Centro de
Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid
© Duane Michals. Cortesía de
DC Moore Gallery, Nueva
Playfulness and irony characterise many of Michals’ works and he has also made
use of these qualities to analyse himself and his fears in an innocent, open-minded
way, touching on themes such as death and sexuality. While his self-portraits
constitute an extremely personal and at times humorous compendium, it is in the
series devoted to the vices and virtues of contemporary art that his acerbic language
reaches exceptionally comic levels, starting with the title How Photography Lost its
Virginity on the Way to the Bank.
Aged 84, Duane Michals continues to create and invent forms and techniques that
respond to his necessity for expression. Aside from the medium, what matters to
him is never repeating himself and he thus invents new means of communicating
with the rest of the world, exploring his innermost depths or laughing at himself. In
recent years, for example, he has started to produce a series of works in colour
which are printed in the shape of a fan and inspired by the popular Japanese Ukiyoe
tradition, with the aim of exploring the enigmatic, fluctuating nature of
contemporary life. This project was followed by a reinterpretation of old ferrotypes,
onto which Michals superimposed signs and words written in oil. During the past
year he has focused on directing short, 7-minute films that express many of his
formal concerns and innovations.
Duane Michals, René Magritte
(Profile and Full Face), 1965
Copia en gelatina de plata con
texto manuscrito
27,30 x 35,24 cm
Carnegie Museum of Art,
The Henry L. Hillman Fund,
© Duane Michals. Cortesía de
DC Moore Gallery, Nueva York
Duane Michals is a total artist, fascinated by masters such as Balthus, Magritte and
De Chirico, whom he has met and photographed over the course of his lengthy
career and who have inspired Surrealist visions in his imaginative works.
Michals’ preference for small-format prints, which is rare in the present day, can be
seen as another way of emphasising his rejection of market strategies. In a period
when the tendency has been to maximise the size of photographs to be seen on
gallery walls, Michals has always printed small images as they transmit a sense of
intimacy and establish a direct relationship with the viewer. As he says: “I am not
interested in the perfect print. I am interested in a perfect idea. Perfect ideas survive
bad prints and cheap reproductions. They can change our lives.”
The layout of the exhibition
The exhibition is organised into a series of sections that present the various
expressive modes which Michals gradually evolved, as well as the different series
on specific themes which he has created over the course of his career.
The first section features a selection of portraits taken during Michals’ visit as a
tourist to the former Soviet Union. This was a decisive moment for his artistic and
professional future and on his return to New York he gave up working as a graphic
designer and embarked on his career in photography.
The next section consists of images by the three painters who have most influenced
Michals’ artistic vision and his approach to creative expression. Balthus, René
Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico are essential references in Michals’ universe. He
knew these artists personally and photographed them and there are clear
connections between his own photographs and some of their paintings.
Duane Michals, Andy Warhol, 1972
Secuencia de 3 copias en gelatina de plata con texto
12,70 × 17,78 cm
Duane Michals
© Duane Michals. Cortesía de DC Moore Gallery, Nueva
The first important series in Michals’ oeuvre is Empty New York, inspired by the
work of the photographer Eugène Atget. The series documents the city, empty and
silent on a Sunday morning, and in its inanimate spaces Michals found the perfect
setting for his future narratives.
The exhibition also includes a comprehensive section on the artist’s sequences,
possibly the formal solution that has brought him the most fame. With these
sequences Michals moved beyond the limits of the individual image, which he
considered insufficient for expressing the interior world that he aimed to transmit to
the viewer. “When I began to do sequences, it wasn’t because I thought it was cool
and the latest thing. I did it out of frustration with the still photograph.” The selection
presented here includes his most light-hearted sequences, in which he plays with
optical conventions, as in Alice’s Mirror and Dr. Heisenberg’s Magic Mirror of
Uncertainty, as well as darker, more reflexive ones, such as The Return of the
Prodigal Son and The Bogeyman.
The revolutionary nature of the sequences was followed by that of writing. Michals’
photo-texts include sentences written in hand on the photographic paper which
complement what is not seen in the image but which needs to be recounted and
shared and is thus a fundamental element for the overall comprehension of the
work. Many of Michals’ texts are ambiguous and relate to the world of the
fantastical, emphasising the double play of word and image. In some of these texts
the photographer expresses political ideology and social critique, as in Black is Ugly
and The Unfortunate Man, while others reveal his innermost feelings, including A
Letter from My Father.
The section devoted to Questions without Answers focuses on Michals’
philosophical concerns, manifested in images with lengthy hand-written texts that
delve into fundamental existential questions.
Double exposure, a technique used by Michals on numerous occasions, becomes a
visual instrument of memory in his account of his origins and family. Entitled The
House I Once Called Home, the texts that accompany this project are of a moving
Michals has never hesitated to express his opinions on politics and society. In On
Contemporary Art he reveals his ideas on the direction taken by the contemporary
art market, in which the opinions of critics raise the prices of works that are of little
merit in themselves.
An artist constantly in search
of new forms and interested
in traditional culture from
around the world, Michals
invented fan-shaped
photograph for his series
Photographs from a floating
World, inspired by the
Japanese Ukiyo-e tradition.
These images are as precise
as a haiku and as enigmatic
as the nature of modern life.
In the past few years
Michals has revived a
technique of painting directly
on photographs in oil. By
adding different marks and symbols to old
ferrotypes he gives new life to old portrait
photographs purchased in street markets,
which he reinterprets to make them the
protagonists of a world created to his own
An extensive section in the exhibition is
devoted to Duane Michals’ commercial work, which he has always undertaken with
absolute seriousness and commitment in order to ensure the greatest possible freedom
in his personal photography. Michals has taken outstanding photographs of leading
figures from the world of culture and performance and the portraits commissioned from
him by prestigious magazines constitute a mosaic of famous faces who pose for the
A Last Walk in the Woods, 2015
Copia cromogénica con texto
Duane Michals. Cortesía de DC
Moore Gallery, Nueva York
© Duane Michals
photographer in innovative ways. These images are shown alongside projects for
advertising and other specific commissions.
The exhibition ends with the artist’s most recent works, which make use of video. A
series of short films combine Michals’ formal inventions with content ranging from
politics to interpersonal communication, all resolved with enormous creativity. For
each of them Michals has produced a poster in which the photogram of the image is
enriched with his hand-written texts.
Finally, the exhibition includes display cases with previously unexhibited documents,
original drawings and layouts of books, and an illustrated biography of Duane

Photograph Credits:

1. Duane Michals, Boy in Leningrad, 1958

Gelatin Silver Print

Duane Michals. Cortesía de DC Moore Gallery, Nueva York

© Duane Michals
2. Portrait of the artist, before the opening at Fundación MAPFRE headquarters in Barcelona.
The photographs may not be bled, cropped, guttered, overprinted or altered in any way, whether it be color, proportion or form. It is also not allowed to write, superimpose or add any text on the images. The reproduction of the photographs must be accompanied by the pertinent copyright and courtesy lines.

The reproduction of images in on-line publications and media is allowed only for exhibition publicity and dissemination where the resolution of the reproduction is a maximum 72 dpi/204 pixels in a non-downloadable format.


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