I’m taking catalogs up to our new exhibition Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals when I notice a jovial laugh in the Atrium. I realize this is the infamous Duane Michals himself. As part of the exhibition team, I’ve spent months studying this artist. I slyly slow down, introduce myself, and sit next to him. He asks, “Are you the one who did the The House I Once Called Home scrapbook? I confess that I had a hand in this exhibition interactive. I’m hesitant to hear his response, but then he says:
“You know that series is really important to me. My family was so complicated and every time I look at those photographs it reminds me of something different each time.”
I pause. And, think to myself, that’s exactly what Duane Michals has inspired in us all.
In his retrospective here at PEM, audiences encounter works from different points in his career. His largest series, The House I Once Called Home, illustrates and chronicles his experience of returning to his childhood home in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, after 20 years. Although long abandoned and in a state of ruin, it still evokes memories of people, occasions and certain moments that cause him to reflect on the past. He created a book-length sequence from this visit, presenting layers of personal and family memories through a unique combination of old and new images and handwritten words.
The idea of home and childhood is a recurring theme in the artist’s work, “I always say that New York is my home, but Pittsburgh’s my spiritual home,” he says.
Similarly, the series suggests the conflicted emotional process of returning to and thinking about home and the memories it holds. Duane Michals presents his experience in a way that is universally shared, provoking us to consider how homes are more than the structures we live in. They embody emotional and personal meanings. We carry memories of home with us throughout our lives.
Marah Guber’s essay in the exhibition catalog Unsettling Sentimentality: Scrapbooks, Children’s books, and the assembled narratives of Duane Michals inspired us to create an interactive gallery experience. Much like Michals’ photographs, audiences are encouraged to share their creative voice and their stories.
Thanks to our exhibition design and creative services departments, we crafted two scrapbooks in the exhibition with cards posing the question: “What would you photograph if you returned home?” A thoughtful mix of drawings and writings are already populating the photo-corner pages in each album, offering extraordinary confessions and memories.
You might have noticed the question doesn’t specify a “childhood” home. Home can take many shapes and sizes and occur at different or recurring moments in your life. We wanted to keep the idea of home open and general.
I have several homes — each representing moments in my life. I would photograph the rosebud tree in my childhood home in my Kansas hometown or the fish I often fed with my grandfather at his farm. It just felt like home when I was with him. It’s funny how the simplest things can immediately transport you to a sense of home.
The responses since the opening have been incredible. It’s slowly evolving into a community archive of stories about home, childhood and family life. Some are silly, some hold a specific emotional resonance and others feel like secret confessions. I welcome you to spend time with the series The House I Once Called Home, read responses in the evolving community scrapbooks and share your memory of home.
What would you photograph?