© Duane Michals, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York
In his series of 11 photographs, American artist Duane Michals makes use of the double exposure technique. Michals often appropriates the frame-by-frame sequential format of cinema. He also incorporates handwritten captions to create surreal photographic narratives reminiscent of dream sequences. His photographic technique and his use of anonymous urban environments create a mysterious atmosphere, which is accentuated rather than clarified by the text. The ‘Mistaken Identity’ narrative begins when the central character spots what appears to be himself walking past the café window where he is sitting drinking coffee. He follows the mysterious man to the train station and then onwards, but on every occasion, the door closes before he can approach the man. It ends when the doppelganger is struck by a car, only to disappear altogether.
As an out gay man Michals has regularly used his photographic work as a form of everyday activism. He aimed to follow in the footsteps of his hero, the 20th-century century Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, who expressed his private passions through his poetry. Though Michals does not always focus his lens of himself, he has increased the visibility of same-sex love and spirituality by creating images that express the universality of human emotions. In other work, Michals has sometimes created sequences that play with unique aspects of the gay experience, such as cruising. This was explored in his six-image sequence ‘Chance Meeting’ (1970). The destructive personal impact of gay criminalisation was examined in ‘Unfortunate Man’ (1978). However, more commonly he seeks to draw upon moments of love, tenderness and sexual tension between men, between women, and between men and women, as part of a shared human experience. He refuses to define gay love, sex or identity as separate from the larger human condition.
Michals’ makes a clear distinction between documentary photography and his own photographs, claiming that ‘to photograph reality is to photograph nothing’. Indeed his photography is all about questioning the reality we think we see. A defining work by Michals’ is a series of nine photographs entitled ‘Things Are Queer’. The first photograph shows what appears to be an ordinary bathroom. The second introduces a pair of enormous pair of hairy legs. As the camera pans back it becomes apparent that it is not the legs that are abnormally large but the bathroom that is incredibly small. His photographs suggest that it is not things or people that are queer but reality itself. Everything is relative – we see the same things differently depending on their relationship with other things and the perspective we view things from. We must always question what we see as normal or abnormal, descent or obscene, gay or straight.
In ‘Mistaken Identity’ Michals draws upon two recurring themes in his work, the myth of Narcissus and the mirror. Both themes reflect on Michals’ own suspicion of the photographic image as a representation of reality. Narcissus is a beautiful young man who, not realising it is only an image, becomes so obsessed with his own reflection that he stares at it for so long that he dies. The myth of Narcissus has had a notable influence on homoerotic culture, thanks to the writing of Andre Gide (1869 - 1951) and Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900). Michals draws parallels between narcissus and photography: in the same way that narcissus’s self-love can never be requited, the photographs ambition to capture a true reality is always ultimately futile.
A series of photographs identical to this set were exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery exhibition '23 Photographers, 23 Directions' in 1978.