Fool’s wisdom

Much respected as a ‘photographer’s photographer’, Duane Michals mocks the art photography establishment in his new book. Is he just a joker in his twilight years, or does he have some serious points to make?

Duane Michals has always been a joker in the photographic pack. In a world that takes itself far too seriously, Michals has consistently given us a jolt with his eloquent photo-sequences. Images with hand-written texts. Witty. Incisive. Idiosyncratic. He has always been a one-off, ploughing his own photographic furrow.

Balancing commercial work with his art photography, Michals has tended to be a photographer’s photographer. Much respected but not highly referenced or quoted – particularly in the past decade when the landscape of art photography/photographic art has expanded globally and changed beyond recognition.

Now, at the age of 75, Michals has published the book Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank, in which he bites the hand of the art world that has fed him and his reputation for decades. Schadenfreude? Or just an art joker at work in the twilight of his years, with nothing to lose?

The book mocks the art establishment and curators, the galleries and collectors who have apparently conspired to elevate certain artists and photographers to dizzy heights of wealth and status. It also pokes fun at a number of key players in the game that is art photography in the 21st century. Cindy Sherman is the first up, as Michals launches into an 18-page spoof sequence entitled ‘Who is Sidney Sherman?’, with Michals himself playing Sidney.

Then we are presented with the ‘Tattle Tales from the Land of Faux Photography’, which is really a cryptic list of Michals’ thoughts, observations and opinions. It includes some choice suggestions: ‘Never trust any photograph so large that it can only fit inside a museum’, later reinforced by an image of a gherkin on a plate entitled ‘A Gursky gherkin is just a very large pickle’.

He takes a swipe at fashion photography along the way, dismissing the crossover between art, photography and fashion: ‘Fashion photography is often artful but seldom an art’. He goes on to define what he calls a ‘Fartster/Fart-ster/ n: one who confuses fashion with art’.

We are then treated to a photo essay, ‘An Unfortunate Tryst with Pipilotti Rist’, in which a young woman seems to be battering an older man with a baseball bat, in the street in broad daylight. It ends with a wonderful series of shoot credits in the time-honoured, editorial fashion-shoot mode, and includes such gems as, ‘Dress:Prada Schmata; Shoes:Manolo Blahnickers’.

Other concoctions include ‘St Francis of Assisi’s faeces with burning cross for added blasphemy in the manner of Andres Serrano’, and various pieces of wisdom dispensed by Michals’ alter ego, Dr Duanus. He also proposes ‘The Stirling Black and Whiters’ – a select group seemingly given the Michals seal of approval. It includes such photographic icons as Annie Liebowitz, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, Bruce Davidson, Sebastião Salgado, Ralph Gibson, Ansel Adams and Susan Meiselas. They are all spared the Dr Duanus treatment.

Mostly, the old prankster targets Thomas Ruff, Rineke Dijkstra and Wolfgang Tillmans in ‘The Dusseldorfer avant-garde Foto Kunst Acadamie of Derriere-Garde Photography’, and takes a shot at the tastes of curators and collectors with ‘Stump the Collectors’, by presenting a generic colour image of a run-down shack and asking the viewer to select the author of the work from a shortlist of well-known art practitioners including Stephen Shore, Robert Polidori, Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston, William Christenberry and even Dr Duanus himself.

His assertion, ‘Photography had never been about money, it had always been about photography. Now that the Haute Kunsters have deemed it art, it’s all about money and not about photography’, is dubious and naive since art (and photography) and commerce have always been closely connected. Could he be referring to the huge prices that some art photographs now command and that somehow this wave of speculation passed him by?

On the upside, it’s refreshing to read a photographic book with some humour. It’s light relief. ‘This is the era of foto fast food. Too many Tillmans will give you heartburn and a fat ass’, is the kind of statement that will ring true for many readers and viewers, when there are hordes of wannabe art photographers roaming the streets of Shoreditch looking for something significant/insignificant to turn into an installation piece.

It is a book for the cognoscenti. It stretches the central idea too far, and it is expensive for what it is, but we should give thanks for the likes of Michals. In a world of sycophancy and visual cannibalism, this is a counterblast. A breath of much-needed foto fresh air.

Foto Follies: How Photography Lost its Virginity on the Way to the Bank is published by Thames & Hudson, price £15.95

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