Duane Michals – [↑] The Most Beautiful Part of a Woman’s Body (1986); [↓] The Most Beautiful Part of a Man’s Body (1986)

[↑] In the oldest dreams of old men / Womens’ breasts still remain. / Long
after their desires have turned to dust. / They are their first
memories. / Warm, nurturing, home. / The point of satisfaction. /
Perfect in their gracious arcs. / Women wear their breasts as medals, /
Emblems of their love.

[↓] I think it must there / Where the torso sits on and into the hips /
Those twin delineating curves / Feminine in grace, girdling the trunk /
Guiding the eye downwards / To their intersection, / the point of
pleasure.

Duane MichalsTake One and See Mt. Fujiyama (1976)

It’s a bit difficult to read the text giving the low-res nature of this assemblage. And since it’s a bit of a challenge to find all the individual photos (presented legibly) in one place, I went ahead and transcribed everything:

  1. It was a hot day. The book was dull. He was bored.
  2. Someone slipped an envelope under the door.
  3. There was something peculiar written on it. (Take one and see Mt. Fujiyama)
  4. Inside were some green pills. Without any hesitation he gulped down a pill.
  5. He felt like a balloon with it’s air being let out. Instantly he became six inches tall.
  6. The door squeaked behind him, as the largest woman he had ever seen entered the room.
  7. She grew larger as she approached his chair and began to tower over him.
  8. She did not to see him. He was excited by her size.
  9. His excitement turned to terror, when he realized that she was going to sit on his chair and on him.
  10. As her colossal ass descended upon him, he tried to run but was paralyzed. His tiny legs refused to move.
  11. He stood frozen with excitement, as the big behind settled down, closer and closer.
  12. She sat on him.
  13. Miraculously, in the darkness, he began to see the snow covered peaks of Mt. Fujiyama.
  14. [No text]
  15. [No text]

I had never seen this until this morning–it’s superbly Lynchian (even if David Lynch would’ve been in the process of struggling to get Eraserhead made at the time Michals unleased this on the world.)

The interesting thing in putting this together is that there appears to be variances in the captioning based on editions? Also, there’s at least two versions of the 6th frame (v1, v2).

I actually think that v2 is probably better because the way it reads above, the frame 6 functions like an insert shot whereas and with v2 there’s a sense that the whole thing is covered in a single master shot.

Duane Michals – Naked Nude (1982)

While the title is a riff on John Berger’s distinction between ‘naked’ (i.e. the natural state of the body) and ‘nude’ (i.e. the conventionally stylized art historical objectification of nakedness) in the seminal Ways of Seeing, I’m always suspicious when someone like Michals telegraphs that he’s aiming for the broadside of the barn.

Despite the simple elegance of the image, I feel like there’s an underlying middle finger being given to the notion that photography as an art is fundamentally more prone to essentialist objectification due the the inclusion/exclusion parameters of the frame edges.

Upon first seeing this I immediately flashed back to a college discussion on Piaget vs Vygotsky–specifically: the supposed necessity of object permanence in order for a child to learn language.

I never grasped the salient tenants of their disagreement but the general principle of object permanence applies here. At a certain point in our development–I believe Piaget would say it happened at one particular point, whereas Vygostsky insisted it was a recurring evolving process of increasingly sophisticated awareness–we learn that the toy our mom is hiding behind her back still exists even though we are unable to see it.

It seems Michals–who to my mind is a metaphysician first and a photographer second–is pointing out that we’ll allow that this woman’s legs continue below the table and even extend beyond the lower frame edge but politics insist we acknowledge that she is severed at the waist by the upper frame edge.

Using the table to create a frame-within-the-frame creates a tableau that it’s easy to dismiss as essentialist–reducing the female body to symbolic genitalia.

That this image doesn’t come off like that is a result of the clever composition, but I think contrary to Michals’ assertion–I’m pretty sure he’s a card carrying Cartesian–it’s the context of the image which dispels any trace of a sexist agenda. First, it is of an especially high quality, it’s self-consciously aware of the relationship between an out gay photographer, a nude model and an audience with the expectant male gaze default setting that will respond either salaciously, with disappointment or with critical censure.

The rightness or wrongness of thesis is irrelevant due to the masterful grasp of the totality of context.

Duane MichalsEven now, when he thought of her, it was her body that he missed. He wanted to touch her. from Person to Person
 (1974)

Quite frankly, Michals’ frustrates the piss out of me. His work is always so goddamn in-fucking-scrutable.

Take this. As with many of his prints, it’s unrefined, sloppy. But it works. And the reason it works had to do with the presentation.

Michals’ tends to present his photographs as a series. He also frequently imposes inscriptions on the image which tend to hijack mere archetypal readings. The inscriptions read like crib notes to the artists more than the audience. Their hurried, seemingly off-the-cuff character enact a strange sort of alchemy wherein the weary, ailing aspects of the image become assets instead of liabilities. 

For example:

This photograph is one of 15 photographs in a series entitled Person to Person which invokes Lynchian account of a relationship’s dissolution. (It’s a little Lost Highway (in structure), a little Mulholland Dr. (in content).

The image I’ve featured is beautiful–in spite of not being on speaking terms with mid-tones. Yet, what’ s interesting is the way the text colors the image with a wistful resignation.

Without seeing another image: the words re-contectualize the photo so that the audience understands that they are envisioning the lover for which the ‘he’ pines. He misses her and wants to touch his lover’s body but cannot. Something happened and they are no longer together.

As you browse through the series, the basic narrative is clearly presented in each frame. And with each additional frame, the story is implicitly re-stated and more details are sussed out.

In the end, although I really don’t want to, I can’t help but like Michals. He’s the type that prefers the prospect of two marshmallows later to one now. But unlike the rest of us, he somehow always manages to have one now and two later.