Read the audioguide to the Duane Michals exhibition

1. Nelli Palomäki - René and Georgette Magritte Holding Hands Behind a Tree

Portraits by Duane Michals are full of mystery. Instead of telling us who we are, they might ask: what all are we? Michals challenges our habit of examining reality through a photograph. He stretches the concept of a moment and plays with things that our vision does not register in everyday life. He has also made more traditional portraits, and despite their straightforwardness, even they are full of questions. 

I find myself returning to one of the portraits again and again: René and Georgette Magritte Holding Hands Behind a Tree. The picture is full of tension created by the hidden grasp and the dark tree set in the middle of the picture. 

Not only does the tree guard a secret, it also splits the picture in half, into two separate portraits. This is a portrait of both a couple and each of them individually, as themselves. There is also aggression in the tree in the middle; it breaks the picture into two halves like an old, torn picture of lovers. 

I imagine the same picture without the tree; the subjects are now unnaturally far apart. They can barely reach each other’s hands, but there is an ease to their grasp. It is obvious just by looking at the picture that these people are very close – there is even something a little mischievous in their expressions.

Now I imagine the picture as two separate portraits, a photo of a woman and a photo of a man. Both of them are in themselves pretty ordinary, no great mystery there. But combined as a family portrait with the tree, the portrait is enigmatic. 

The tree in the middle is like a third person in the picture, a child held onto by its parents. Or a parent whose grown children are trying to shake themselves loose. On the other hand, the tree can also take the shape of the main character in the portrait, its branches forming the people in the picture. Their bodies and hands together with the tree trunk form the letter M, perhaps M for Magritte. 

In any case, what is happening behind the tree is something so precious that there is no need to parade it in front of the whole world. 


2. Laura Malmivaara - Duane Michals: Earth Dreams (Andy Summers) 

At first I see enormous wings and the shape of a man inside them. I do not recognize the person. Only when I see the hand-written text above the photograph – Andy Summers – I realize it is from the 80s. The photo could be from the turn of the century, a time of bulky cameras and long exposure times. It has the same timeless and ageless feel. The butterfly is in motion, uncontrollable and playful. 

This is a double exposure photograph, and it is as much a mental image as a portrait. 

When Duane Michals was 90 years old, he said in an interview that he likes to call himself an expressionist. Sometimes a picture is needed, sometimes words, and sometimes even a little story. The most important thing for him is taking pictures first and only then seeing what happened. 

I also find the power of intuition compelling; I can relate to his desire to give room for the possibility of coincidence and preserve his freedom of expressing himself using different methods. 

In his pictures, Duane Michals plays with the rhythm of the gaze: who is looking at whom? The subject is looking at me through reflections and mirrors. Sometimes the photographer is visible, sometimes there are toes; all kinds of imperfect and queer stuff.  

Duane Michals has said that one has to make mistakes. Do not try to be perfect; make your own photographs, not those of others. 

This is what I am trying to keep in mind. The joy, the coincidence, the freedom of expression. 


3. Orlan Ohtonen - Duane Michals: David Hockney and Friend 

The picture is split by a line, like a mirror or a wall of glass. On one side, in the foreground, a masculine person is resting shirtless, leaning backwards, arms crossed behind neck, eyes closed, serene, splayed out. The flowers in the vase are also splayed out, looking like they are growing out of the resting person’s head. 

On the other side of the line, in the background, David Hockney is sitting in a chair. He is also leaning back, but his body language is different from the openness of the other person. Arms tightly on his side, wearing a light suit and a bow tie, he seems to be looking at the resting man. Hockney’s face, however, is blurred by the reflection of a plant – like a tree growing out of his head and back. 

The name of the picture, ’David Hockney and Friend’, made me pause and consider it. I wondered what kind of intimate moment these friends are sharing. Why are they dressed so differently, and why is one looking at the other shut in deep in his own mind? I consider the line splitting the picture to be an important element in the story told by the picture, because I imagine the characters having conflicting emotions. 

Later I saw the same picture displayed under a different name: ’David Hockney In Love’. The picture is part of a series that is easy to read as a queer, perhaps unrequited love story. I am contemplating the reasons for having two different names for this picture. 

Even though Michals’s work includes openly homoerotic pictures, he mostly portrays queerness without highlighting it. Most often he approaches the subject in the guise of theory or storytelling, using visual hints that are best understood – and sometimes perhaps only understood – through queer experience. It is easy to associate this approach with the fact that Michals has already made pictures in a time when homosexuality was criminalized in all U.S. states. This association creates a tension in the picture and its name, and it made a strong impression on me.   

The simultaneous serenity and conflict in the picture are another reason why I keep coming back to this picture – perhaps because I consider these a perfect portrayal of the complexity of intimate relationships. A shared moment can be full of peace, even though it can be hard before and after. The aloofness of the other can be the very thing that draws you to them. Shadows and lushness can grow in love. Whether it is filled with love, friendship, or something else, Hockney’s gaze splintered by leaves reminds me of all of these diverse features of relationships. 


4. Sergei Pavlov - thoughts on Duane Michals' portraits

As a fellow photographer, I recognize the gaze that I feel is looking for something larger than life. Duane Michals has photographed big personalities who definitely would not feel boring to a more ordinary photographer. However, the most central element of the portrait, the face of a human being, seems to play an exceptionally small role in most of Michals’s work. 

The pictures feature countless mirrors, tremors, reflections, multiple exposures, meta-level self portraits, contact sheets, collages, and several other alternative techniques. 

These pictures suggest that the visible everyday reality is not what Michals was interested in. But what is visible and everyday reality really? Even though these pictures do not show me that, they take me into a cinematic world that takes shape around characters – the dimension where, instead of the everyday, we can see into the possible experience behind the everyday. Michals’s pictures seem to aim away from realism, but they are still highly relatable. They highlight Michals as an artist, but also our time in a world tinged by Western popular culture, where many of us form a mental image of ourselves not only based on visible reality but also subconscious dreams and abstract reflections. 

Even though Michals’s style feels theatrical, these pictures also emanate communication and trust. With Michals, these people have been able to open themselves up or bring forth a character out of themselves. As a visual artist, Michals has responded to this character on a personal and wordless level, because all of these pictures feel emotionally relatable in some way. This is why the pictures feel like a balanced dance and play, where the subjects have had the chance to relax for the moment and remember that we are much more than our own mental image of ourselves, so we do not necessarily have to take ourselves too seriously all the time. 


Kämp Galleria
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ma–pe 11–20, la–su 11–18
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Kaapeliaukio 3, G-rappu, 00180 Helsinki
Katso kartalla Kaapelitehdas
ti–su 11–18, ke 11–20
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