Duane Michaels is a professional photographer. He didn’t set out to become a photographer, it just sort of happened. He worked for Time Magazine in advertising and promotional work. When an opportunity arrose to travel to Russia, he jumped on it, bringing along a camera: “And I took a camera and if I hadn’t taken the camera, I never would’ve been a photographer.”
The art world knows him because he began to take photographs in sequence. The idea of shooting sequentially sprung from his notion that a single frame only touched the surface of an event, and Michaels wanted to tell stories:
I found what interested me were things like what happens when you die? I mean, traditional photographers would photograph a corpse or they would photograph people crying in black at the cemetery. That’s what things look like. See, I’m much more interested in what something feels like, so if I see a woman crying, I want to know what’s the nature of her grief? Why is she crying? So I became very frustrated with the limitations of the medium which eventually evolved into my writing with photographs because, again, I was frustrated – so I wasn’t being hip and cool, I’m not – See, I don’t even wear black. I’m never hip and cool. I’m charming.
This series is called Death Comes to the Old Lady. Each frames moves us a little closer to the old woman sitting in a chair before the viewer. The woman casts a shadow on the wall behind her, and as the woman’s shadow fades, we see another show in the distance, in the room behind where the woman sits.
In frame 2, a tall man walks into the frame from the back room. His image is blurred as he walks toward the old woman.
The focus clears as the man comes closer. He walks to the woman and touches her shoulder. He is all a blur. The woman never changes her expression. She stares intently at us.
In the final frame death is gone, and the old woman rises from her chair. Now she is all blurred motion as she moves toward whatever comes next.
When Michaels shot this series there were no digital cameras. To achieve these effects, he would have had to rewind the film to shoot over the previous exposure to reveal increments of motion in a ghostly film
I was interested in, again, metaphysical issues like what happens when you die? So I did a little sequence called “The Spirit Leaves the Body.” So you saw this dead – supposedly dead man on a bed and I double exposed him getting up, walking away, so I did the moment before and the moment after. I simply stretched – It’s more like haiku where you just stretch one moment to two moments to three moments to four moments, and it suited me very well because I – Then I could get into all sorts of arcane, esoteric subjects. Photographers only photograph what they can see and yet the most important things in your life are your feelings: grief, passion, if somebody you love walks out on you. You know, you’re miserable. Your life is destroyed.
Photography shouldn’t be just about observation. That really limits it. Why don’t they photograph dreams? I mean, we spend a third of our lives doing – and I’m sure people have more interesting dreams than their – but it’s – they have to enlarge the menu. They’ve got to start thinking outside of the box, not just a little definition of people are what they appear to be in a portrait. They’re not. People are not at all what they appear to be. The big – Look at Pat Robertson. I mean, the biggest scoundrels can look like somebody’s benevolent grandfather, you know, or – So I don’t know. You have to – Every generation should reinvent the medium.
The material quoted here is taken from an interview with Mr Michaels conducted by Maureen Cavanaugh at the Neurosciences institute, sponsored by the San Diego State University Art Council.