Wednesday, October 28, 2009


One of the wonders of photography is how it enables an interaction of art and science. A successful photographic vision must take both aspects into account. It’s fascinating to trace trends in photography and tie them to the techniques available at any particular time. Recent changes in digital imaging software often create a concurrent boom in style. For instance, a few years ago Photoshop CS2 introduced a built in High Dynamic Range function. Suddenly everyone was producing (or some might say, overproducing) images that represented luminance values unseen before in previous digital photographs. While this synergy between technology and creativity might seem commonplace in todays rapidly moving digital environment, the history of photography is laced with such interactions.

In 1907 the French Lumière brothers (known as one of the earliest cineasts and inventors of numerous motion film processing techniques) unveiled a new technology for producing color still photographs patented as Autochromes. The production involved grinding potatoes into microscopic grains and then dying these particles in batches of red-orange, violet and green. The potato starch was then thoroughly mixed and coated onto lacquered glass plates. The plates were pressed through rollers to flatten, effectively creating minute color filters.

The autochome method yielded soft, creamy, ethereal colors. The grain was very apparent and it’s coarse uneven quality created stray colors. Yet the inherent imperfection of the process was also its greatest strength, producing a dreamy, almost pointillist effect. As is often in the history of photography’s many permutations, the science determined the art.

Many serious photographers took up the autochrome process including Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz.

Alvin Langdon, an up and coming photographer known for his portraits of Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats and Auguste Rodin also jumped into this new world of color photography. In 1908 he produced an iconic image of Mark Twain reclining in red dressing gown holding a pipe in one hand and a book in his other.

The glass plate autochrome process continued successfully until the 1930’s and then became supplanted by more contemporary film based technologies like Kodaks color reversal film, Kodachrome.

There has been a renewed interest in autochrome photography in recent years. The George Eastman House has a significant collection. Last year the Amon Carter museum in Fort Worth, Texas held a major show 100 Years of Autochrome. Currently UC Riverside has an exhibit Smoke and Mirrors The Magic of Autochrome through Jan. 2, 2010.


Friday, October 9, 2009

Duane Michals

Photography is often seen as having the ability to define truth by recording any particular reality in a fraction of a second. This notion has been popularized throughout photography’s history and can be encapsulated by the oft used phrase “capturing the moment.” While this might be important to photojournalists whose stock in trade is truthfulness, I prefer the divine lie which photography more often provides.

By divine lie I mean the ability to create fictions: ideas created in the imagination brought to light as two dimensional graphic stories we call photographs. In the 1960’s and 1970’s there was one photographer that took this idea of story telling to the pinnacle of fine art. His name is Duane Michals.

Michals was born in 1932 in McKeesport, PA to working class parents of Czech descent. His mother worked as a live-in maid for a wealthy family and only saw her family on weekends. Often alone as a child, he delved into his rich imagination, creating an interior world populated with alter egos to keep him company. After serving in the military he spent a year at Parsons School of Design and then began working with magazines as an art director and designer. In 1958, bored and yearning for some larger existence he took the opportunity to travel to Russia, newly opened to tourism. Michals borrowed a friends 35mm camera to use on the trip. Wandering the streets of Leningrad he began taking snapshots and portraits of the people he encountered. Upon his return home, he realized the ennui had not lifted and his life needed a new direction. Photography was his new course.

Michals demonstrated that photography didn’t have to be about a concrete reality. Instead he used the medium to explore philosophical and spiritual beliefs. He wanted to capture the mind’s interior thoughts and all its complex neuroses. He achieved these aims by using a cinematic technique of sequenced images to tell a story over time. He often employed his own hand written comments to elaborate the story, yielding a personal, memoir like effect. Death is a theme often visited in his sequences. He employs blurring as a technique to denote an evanescence of spirit and energy.

Much of Michals work is influenced by surrealism, demonstrated by an abundance of visual non-sequiturs. The surrealist painter René Magritte was both an influence and subject for his photographs.

Equally at ease with commercial and fine art work, he has shot for Vogue, Esquire and Mademoiselle magazines. In 1974 he covered the filming of Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby for Vogue magazine resulting in stunning, ethereal photographs of Farrow.

Michals has published numerous books including Sequences 1970, Real Dreams 1976 and more recently The Adventures of Constantine Cavafy, 2007. His work hangs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

“I believe in the invisible” – Duane Michals

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