PHOTOGRAPHY / The talking picture show: Andrew Palmer reviews the retrospective of the work of Duane Michals, at the Royal Photographic Society in Bath

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The Independent Culture
LIKE many photographers whose work has crept into the higher echelons of the art market, Duane Michals spends a fair amount of time taking pictures of himself. There is Self Portrait as if I Were Dead, in which Michals, clothed, looks down on his own unclothed corpse, I Build a Pyramid, a sequence which portrays Michals building a triangular effigy of himself in front of the great tombs of Cairo, and Self Portrait with a Feminine Beard, in which the bald-headed Michals appears with female genitalia superimposed on his chin. The list goes on.

Unlike Cindy Sherman, who made a point of masking her own personality in her works (in Film Stills she photographed herself playing others in a series of fictitious B-movie scenes), Michals has positively revelled in the opportunity to expose himself. He's a homosexual, and something of a maverick, whose narcissism vacillates between the infantile and the melancholic, and, as viewers of his self-portraits will know, he's not afraid to show it.

In Michals' case, casting himself in his own image is but one facet of his broader bid for the title of photography's enfant terrible. 'The majority of photographers,' he opines, 'focus on the obvious. They believe and accept what their eyes tell them, and yet eyes know nothing.' Consequently, he has dismissed out of hand the likes of Cartier-Bresson and his decisive moment and Ansel Adams and his monumental landscapes. 'To photograph reality,' says Michals, 'is to photograph nothing.'

Michals' conviction of his own genius has most brazenly been demonstrated by his penchant for defacing the works of photography's revered patriarchs by painting over them - not least original prints by Ansel Adams and Cartier-Bresson. But for those not too aggrieved by his arrogance, Michals' retrospective, on show at the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, does lend some weight to his claims to have widened the boundaries of the medium.

This man is certainly no street reporter. From his very first snap-shots of the citizens of Leningrad taken as a tourist in 1958, Michals seemed more interested in the motivation behind the photograph than in conventional considerations such as atmosphere or context. By the time he went professional in the 1960s, it was clear that he was not going to waste his time on simply conveying a series of optical facts. On the contrary, as far as he is concerned optical facts are there to be mistrusted.

Things are Queer, for example, neatly challenges the viewer's assumptions about the photographic version of reality. The work comprises nine photographs, each one a detail of the one that follows. The first shot shows a bog-standard bathroom. Then the camera pulls back to reveal what is either an oversized man, or an undersized bathroom: the man's foot is the size of the lavatory-bowl. During the ensuing sequence, it emerges that the photograph of the man in the tiny bathroom is itself a picture in a book being read by another man in an alley. Then it turns out that the man reading the book in the alley is also a picture of a picture in a frame which is hanging on a wall. The final twist in this circuitous tale is the revelation that this picture of the man reading the book in the alley is itself a picture hanging on the original bathroom wall. The sequence taken as a whole has a cheeky intrigue - at no point can we actually identify the perspective of the camera, the reality of each shot is superseded by the next.

Things are Queer, made in the early 1970s, in many ways set the stage on which the rest of Michals' career has been acted out. Besides marking the beginning of his preoccupation with the Surrealist warning that 'things are not what they seem', it anticipated the form which was to distinguish Michals as the photographer who could photograph phenomena which supposedly could not be photographed.

The sequential narrative, his innovatory signature - in which a story is unfolded in cumulative pictorial phases (typically in five to seven images) - has proved a useful vehicle in which to transport his more unphotographable ideas. And the sequences of dreams, death, myth and erotic fantasy are always designed to elicit a response more cerebral than aesthetic - though it has to be said that some of the tales are more thought-provoking than others.

In the sequence Paradise Regained, Adam and Eve appear in the first shot fully dressed in a New York apartment. By shot six the couple have trodden the route from innocence to knowledge, but in reverse: they have been progressively undressed and the furniture in the apartment has been substituted by pot plants. Michals is not asking us to have any visual faith in the charade being navely acted out in front of us (all the elements of the picture tell us that this is a charade, right down to the electric clock on the mantelpiece which reveals that the unfolding of the sequence has taken all of seven minutes). We think, instead, of the obvious play on John Milton's more celebrated version of recovering celestial bliss. If Milton held that man's salvation would ultimately be retrieved through religion, Michals argues that redemption will come only through a return to nature. Similarly, in Fallen Angel, the wings that the angel loses as retribution for making love to a mortal are so ludicrously caricatural that you accept the sequence metaphorically, as a more generalised reflection on taboo. In the photographer's words: 'To fulfil a fantasy is the quickest way to destroy it.'

In many ways Michals is anti-aesthetic. His techniques tend to be crude, and he has always looked upon the fact that he has neither a darkroom nor a studio as a liberation rather than a constraint. Where he does draw on specialist techniques, they are used functionally - they might be symbolic, but they are rarely subtle. In the photograph Christ in New York, we can almost see the coarsely constructed mask used to dodge out Christ's halo in the print. Likewise, his double exposures, used frequently to allude to the spiritual side of human nature, seem to be completely devoid of any atmospheric intent.

While these aspects of his work reconfirmed the nature of his cause, though, they also provided the first warnings that Michals would some day relinquish his status as a photographer. By the early 1980s almost all his photographs were accompanied by written texts. To begin with, image and text were interdependent, but later the texts became verbal digressions in their own right. Words and picture conspire successfully, for example, in This Photograph Is my Proof, a shot of a couple sitting romantically side by side on a bed, taken in 1974. 'Things were still good between us,' Michals writes in his own handwriting beneath the picture, 'and she embraced me . . . She did love me. Look see for yourself.' Here Michals enriches the image by attributing insecure thoughts to his actor, and by so doing alludes to the fallibility of the photographic proof - even if we did believe that the couple were happy, it makes no difference now. Relationships are transient and photographs of things past are static moments open to reappraisal.

By 1986 though, Michals seems to use the photograph non-committally. The Most Beautiful Part of a Woman's Body is a shot of a woman's breasts. Beneath it the text begins: 'In the oldest dreams of men . . .', and having described how breasts are men's first memories, he concludes 'perfect in their gracious arcs, women wear breasts as medals, emblems of their love'. Even if you are interested in Michals' drivel relating to breasts, the picture in this case is but an empty appendage. In the same way, his photograph of a man holding an American flag in one hand and a Bible in the other (CLEAN) seems only to be a pretext for Michals to air his socio-political views ('Homosexuals were immediately rounded up by morality squads and vanished. Creationism was declared the official state science . . .').

In the 1990s Michals' work has taken that predictable step away from photography in any purist sense. The mechanically produced image still exists, but only as part of an increasingly impenetrable wider collage, subsumed in paint, graphics, poetry and prose. Works such as the faux-naf In the Spiral Garden, or the bafflingly coy etchings What Funny Things Billy Dreams represent a telling irony behind Michals' career. This is the man who, in the 1960s, released the medium from its descriptive shackles, and showed us how pictures could talk. But this also is the man who ultimately decided they didn't talk enough. It now seems that, frustrated by the medium's limitations, Michals has turned his back on his own show.

RPS, Bath (0225 462841). To 4 Oct.

(Photographs omitted)