In 1966, Duane Michals got on a plane bound for Alaska. What was supposed to be a short trip on an assignment for Esquire photographing the Alaska Natives, ended up being a three-week stay, with temperatures so low that it was impossible to ever get warm. A few photos from this trip were published in an article in Esquire, but the remainder have sat in Michals’ archive of thousands of unseen photographs. Now, they are being unveiled for the first time in a miniature digital book he titles “The Marriage of Jack Frost and Snow White”.
Michals, a self-described “expressionist” who is perhaps best known for pioneering the use of multiframe sequences to tell photographic stories, has been slowly going through his archive and releasing unseen images. The Marriage of Jack Frost and Snow White is one of those endeavors, combining photography with bits of prose and digital art. “It’s a wonderful vehicle to get the work out there,” he said in a phone interview.
This work is a set of 29 images taken in Mekoryuk and Toksook Bay, Alaska: half are black-and-white photographs, the rest are saturated in blues and pinks. His assignment was to photograph the indigenous groups whose land and culture had been squeezed from them, as their population dwindled and they had to enroll their children in American-run schooling. The islands had their own schools for the lower grades, but families had to send their children to the mainland for high school. “Once the kids went to the school on the mainland, they turned their back on their own culture,” said Duane Michals. “They didn’t want to go back to the island, and the culture was being decimated. The locals took up the American ways, and the Americans treated them badly.”
The photo that ran in Esquire was of a group of young Inuit boys dressed in Boy Scout uniforms, holding up an American flag while one plays the trumpet. The white of the flag is the exact same white of the landscape, everything around them covered in snow. The Esquire shot stands apart from the rest: most of the photos are shots of the lands, of the sea, or the sky, all bathed in brilliant shades of blue.
The colors are a contrast to the accompanying text in the booklet. “Everything was white, whiter, whitest,” Michals wrote between black-and-white shots of snowy landscapes. Yet, one color photograph shows the houses and snow in a deep blue light. “There was a big snowstorm, and the light was strangely blue,” he said. “It was quite beautiful actually. [But] that’s how the film printed; it was Kodachrome II, from the 60s. I liked that blue so much that we made a black and white picture blue, too.”
Looking through the pictures, one can almost feel the chill of the snow. Now 89, Duane Michals has never forgotten how cold that experience was, likening it to his time serving in the army as a young man. “When I was in the army in Germany in tanks, we were in the field for the entire month of February, and there was no place to get warm. If you took your glove off and touched the tank, your hand would stick to it. We slept in sleeping bags and you’d wake up with six inches of snow on your sleeping bag. It was nasty stuff.” That, he says, is the closest experience he’s had to the cold of Alaska. “It was cold, horrible, freezing!” said Michals.
The series not only offers a snapshot of the life and poverty of the Native Alaskans during the 1960s, it also serves as a documentary of a group that is still fighting to survive. “It was just very sad,” he said. “I don’t know what’s left of that culture by now.” But there are moments of joy: one photo, shot in black and white, shows a group of kids in a circle holding a blanket, having used it to vault one of them high up into the sky. Though the photograph is blurred, the child, mid-air, has a grin taking up what’s visible of their face; they are suspended in the air with arms outstretched, as though they were making a snow angel in the sky.
As for why he’s releasing these images now, he counters: why not? “I’ve got all these different things that people have never seen,” Michals said. “I’m very lucky; I’ve had a very, very full career. I’ve done absolutely everything. A lot of quote-unquote art photographers and students look down on commercial work, which is so stupid. I loved it! I did Pamper ads, AT&T, the Police album [cover].”
“But,” he conceded, “I’ve never lost sight of doing my own work.” Michals has so many photographs in his archive, he could reasonably do one of these books every week, he said. He’s also been doing sculpture recently, and film as well; his last exhibition was at the Morgan Library in New York City, where he showcased different mediums of his work alongside treasures from the Morgan’s vault. “I hate the word artist,” he said. “You think of Michelangelo; there’s this whole history of art, no, no, no. I call it: doing my work. I do my work and that’s all that counts. I call myself an expressionist: it’s not about photography, or writing, or tap-dancing, it’s about how well you express whatever you want to talk about.”
With a plethora of still-unseen images sitting in his archive, Duane Michals will start doing more projects like The Marriage of Jack Frost and Snow White, glimpses into a sixty-year career of taking photographs and creating art. The through-line of Michals’s work has been his unending exuberance for life, whether he’s photographing Andy Warhol or freezing in Alaska.
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
More information on Duane Michals here.