16 May 2007

Duane Michals, Foto Follies (2)

Last fall, I noted the publication of a new book, Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank by Duane Michals and suggested that it sounded like it would be worth tracking down. Michals appears at right in a self-portrait from 2000. Today I found the book and it is a scream, a terrific send-up of the photographers and what passes for critical discourse in the chatter surrounding them in the art world. He skewers many photographers, some of whom I quite like, with a wry and penetrating eye. The book opens with a series of photographs of Michals aka Sidney Sherman. Here is the first of those images and the caption Michals attaches to it.

“Sidney paints his fingernails shocking pink, a brilliantly audacious gesture that exposes the discorroborative bias of Revlon’s vacuity, while trenchantly confirming lipstick as a phallic ploy of alpha males vis-à-vis Derrida’s strategies of discorroboration.”

Exactly so!
Both Images in this post © Duane Michals.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Duane Michals is a remarkable man and teacher. Some time ago I studied with Sing Si Schwartz, who had been Phillipe Halsman's assistant and who was a friend of Duane's. Sing Si gave us one of Duane Michal's assignments, which was to go out into the world, sans camera, and to say hello to complete strangers using only your eyes.

It completely changed the way I see the public. To say hello to a stranger with your eyes alone is to really break down the barriers. It is distressingly intimate and vulnerable. Friendly eye contact also establishes a relationship immediately, one that I recognize in Duane's photographs.

17 May, 2007 14:01  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

aricm, A few years ago I was on leave in NYC; I made a habit of speaking to people on the subway and found that that took nearly eveyone by surprise. This "assignment" you describe is a wonderful idea! It does, I think, say somethign about those who would ask it of students. Thanks. Jim

17 May, 2007 22:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, The first time I tried this little "assignment" was also on the subway. And I was very surprised at how friendly people were in general. I'm sure I avoided the angry looking ones right away, so I can't say my experience is a cross section of NYC, but it was surprising. I have always maintained that New Yorkers are in general the friendliest and most helpful group of people I have met on the planet. We are just packed in really tight and our dirty laundry ends up in public more than in other places. Hmmm. I think there is more to write about there... All best. Aric

18 May, 2007 06:21  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Aric, People were not actually unfriendly in my experience; but they were surprised when someone spoke to them. I agree that t he folks in NYC do tend to be friendly. I think I need to find a way to integrate this assignment into one of my classes. Jim

18 May, 2007 07:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I completely understand where you are coming from with observing the surprise. I share it as well. Many days I spend close to an hour on the New York subway. And I can count on my fingers (and maybe a few toes) the number of times in 13 years that I have had a conversation with a stranger. Of those conversations, they have almost always come out of a shared experience in the train car, such as a fight, or a genuinely unusual (even by New York standards) panhandler or some other disturbance.

It is always fun to talk to tourists. You can spot them with their maps and their open gazes and cheerful conversations. Anyone who asks for directions is always carefully steered in the right way to go. And if one of us happens to be going that way too, we will make sure they get off at the right spot or make the right connection.

But, when I get on with several hundred other people, we all seem to have a shared social contract that keeps our interactions to a manageable level of predictability. People spread out to fill the space available and apologize for the accidental bump or trod on foot. But almost never do I observe people meeting on the train.

Frankly, I find the idea of having a conversation on the train simply for its own sake appealing. But as you observed, it very rarely happens.

In 2005, when the city was trying to enact a very ill conceived ban on photographing on the subway, I spent quite of a bit of time making pictures there. My way of protest was to carry a camera around my neck in full view. This became the focal point of a number of conversations, mostly strangers telling me that I would be arrested or that they would have me arrested. I carried a printed copy of the MTA rules of conduct from their website that explicitly allowed the taking of pictures. However, the media campaign against photographing on the train was so successful that most New Yorkers believed it was illegal.

The work that came out of that was not intended as social protest, but rather as an exploration of what we have briefly been discussing here; the interaction between strangers and their strategies of keeping boundaries preserved.

The New York subway is a rich social experiment indeed.

18 May, 2007 08:53  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is funny how what I think of as one of my most 'American' experiences occurred on the subway in New York. When I visited with my family in 1991, these strange Americans would actually open a conversation with us on the subway. We saw it as something pleasantly strange, a show of friendliness, and thought "How different from home!". That has inspired me to talk to strangers. It is still difficult, though.

19 May, 2007 05:42  

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