Thank you, Duane

Joseph Cornell

Duane Michals, Joseph Cornell, 1972. Gelatin silver print with hand-applied text. The Henry L. Hillman Fund. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Duane Michals.  I’d first been introduced to his work by my high school photography teacher.  At 16, I remember thinking how unfair it seemed that someone had already thought of writing on their photographs and using camera tricks like long and double exposures on purpose, since I’d believed that I was the first person to ever think of shooting this way.

Edie waiting

The author waits her turn to speak with Duane Michals. Photo by Linda Benedict-Jones

Unfair though it seemed that Michals had beaten me to method, I liked the way his portraits made me feel.  Reading his handwritten clues and seeing the ghosts of a subjects’ movements made me feel like I was an insider to un-photographable secrets.  Photography has this reputation of being a descriptive medium, and Michals seem to be saying, photography alone doesn’t say enough. So I’m going to tell you what’s missing in this story.  Even in his photographs where nothing seems to be affected are still these emotional in-between moments that we all experience.

At the time that I’d first looked at his work, I was beginning to understand that I had a story of my own to tell, and later I would be grateful to Michals for showing me a way to tell it.

I’d met my high school photography teacher because he was hired by a local philanthropic organization to write a book about local families with some sort of noteworthy or challenging circumstance in their lives.   My family was included on list because both of my parents are blind.

I suppose at some point during the early interviews, he’d told my mother that he was a photographer and was starting a photography club at my school. She told him that I’d expressed an interest in photography before, and just like that I’d joined the club.  Later, I became president of the photography club, worked as yearbook photographer and went to college to pursue art and photography.

At the time that he started interviewing us, I’d not thought of our circumstances as particularly noteworthy or challenging.  As my interest and determination to pursue art and photography evolved into a path, I did have to think more critically about the choice to become a visual artist and the effects of that choice on myself and my parents.

During my freshmen photography class in college, we were given an assignment, not unlike assignments that I would later give to my freshmen photography students.  That is, to create a body of 10 connected images.  I chose to tell a story, very much like the work of Duane Michals.  My story was about my love of photography and my complicated and guilty feelings for loving it, told through photographs of my family, specifically my parents.  It’s been well over a decade since I did this project, but I’m still grateful for having done it. I’m also grateful to have been able to tell Duane Michals a little bit about it.

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Photo by Edie Shimel

 

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Photo by Edie Shimel

 

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