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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Contemporary Storyteller

Duane Michals — Image, Ideas, and Words

Linda Butler convinced me I was a storyteller; Pedro Meyer convinced me I was an image maker; but it was Duane Michals who added perhaps the most important evolution in my creative process: he added words.

As a young photographer, I had it drilled into me that "any photograph that needs words needs to be a better photograph." I learned this is one of those axiomatic rules that simply cannot be broken without admitting that the photograph is suspect. Even titles were often considered a crutch, and that the ultimate artsy elimination of such crutches was the title one's photograph Untitled. Duane Michals stood all of that on its head.

I don't know what Michal's evolution was as a photographer. Did he start off as a straight photographer? I don't know. I do know that when I first discovered Duane Michals for myself was in an exhibit of his work I saw at The Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. This extensive, one-man show extended to several rooms of work, various projects from various epochs in Michal's prolific career. The common theme that held them all together was his use of text, not as independent titles carefully positioned outside the frame as exhibition labels — but text in the photographs, written with his own hands, sometimes inside the image, sometimes across the image, more often in the margins, sometimes even up the sides of the photographs. To Michals, text was an important part of his narrative process, and indeed a part of the artwork itself. Michals' work suggested that photographs are not an independent form of communication, but an integral part of a partnership dance between words/ideas and his images.

Quite simply, Michaels does not distinguish between his ideas and his images, and therefore his text is not about the artwork but rather is part of it. One cannot — or at least should not — look at his photographic images without reading the text that is a part of the art. Hence his inclusion of the text on the photographic paper next to the image, written on top of the image, surrounding the image. It's not a label; it's is not a descriptor; it's not a title. It is part of the artwork. 

Almost every photographer includes some text with their work, typically in the ubiquitous artists statement and or title. But in most cases, we can enjoy the photographs and get the message without having to read the artist statement, as witness that most of us don't. Even the titles are often superfluous and can be ignored. Does it change your perception to know that Ansel Adams' photograph from Wawona Point is titled Clearing Winter Storm? Or can you simply enjoy the photograph even if you don't know the title? With Duane Michals, that's simply not the case. His text is so integrated with the image and part of the artwork that to have said to have viewed of the artwork we must have read the text. Michal's artwork is not his images, but rather his ideas which are communicated by the integration of his image and text. Even penmanship style informs the artwork; sometimes it's formal, sometimes frenetic; sometimes it's cleanly written with even margins; sometimes he scratches things out and re-writes it. It's clear that to him, photography and text is a kind of performance.

Once I had seen Michal's work. I found it much easier to embrace the idea of including text as a part of my artwork, not merely as a label to the side. The real question was how to do it successfully.

I found it only natural to turn to Duane Michals as a source to learn the technique. After reviewing in detail a number of his of his books, I came to a few very simple conclusions that has guided my work ever since. First, if the text is unnecessary, don't use it. Second, if the text is necessary, don't be afraid to use it. Third, if the text simply restates what we can already see in the photograph, it is unnecessary; eliminate it. If the photograph simply illustrates what is better communicated in the text, eliminate the photograph. In essence, any combination of image and text must create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, each part reinforcing and amplifying the other so that the viewer's experience would be incomplete if either were eliminated.

Let me illustrate with an example. As a direct result of Duane Michal's influence in my own thinking about photography, in my Made of Steel project, I found that I could utilize short quotations, snippets from conversation, expressions, and sometimes even descriptions, particularly if the photograph itself was not a portrait, but rather a still life of tools. Words added movement and personality that supplemented the still life. Photographs do an extraordinarily good job of communicating what they are capable of communicating. But there are certain things a photograph simply cannot express. It cannot express what just did happen, it cannot express what is about to happen, it cannot express what someone says or thinks. But text can and sometimes it is the combination of image and words that creates the most powerful expression. Duane Michals inspires because he did not allow himself to become confined by the normal constraints of the world of photography, and showed us all how photography can so successfully be combined with text to create stories that neither alone could do so successfully.