Duane MichalsMan Undressing (1990)

I spent my first three years as a photographer relying solely on self-instruction.

As far as art photography went I was familiar enough with Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, Sugimoto, Araki, Nan Goldin and, of course, my best beloved Francesca Woodman.

Duane Michals was the first photographer I encountered in my MFA track that got under my skin.

Some of it was due to the fact that you can’t look at his work without realizing how huge an impact he had on Woodman. She routinely took cues from him and made better and far more accessible work than him by standing on his shoulders.

Still, Woodman’s work has one flaw: it’s singularly narcissistic. This sounds like a cutting criticism; it’s not: history is littered with examples of singularly narcissistic white cis men. Woodman’s work will always be important for the way it insists upon the potential of narcissism as a motivation for art by white cis women.

She carried over many of what I consider to be Michals unconsidered aesthetic debts. Like Brassai, Michals likes things dark. Like Cartier-Bresson, there is something about the way he shoots that feels international (even though he mostly worked in NYC, if memory serves).

Another way to look at it is in conception, Michals is far more visionary than Woodman. However, w/r/t public consumption, Woodman reigns supreme. (Rightly so, I’d argue.)

Years later, I’m still not entirely sure how to wrap my brain around Michals. I definitely appreciate the conceptual rigor and thought that motivates his work. I frequently object to his muddy technical chops. Yet there is one thing that becomes clearer to me every time I sit down with his work: the profound empathy underlying it.

For an openly gay man who is hugely invested in avoiding political work: his work is maybe the model I would suggest for tempering heteronormativity in depictions of sexuality–because although he’s made decidedly gay imagery, he also finds a way of presenting heterosexual exchanges in a way devoid of pretense or fantasy.

I relate to the image above because the palpable weight of individual awkwardness balanced against the tension of seduction/desire rings unsettling true.

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