Practitioners often use images and text together in their work. Two photographers who use text to enhance their images are Duane Michals and KayLynn Deveney.
To begin with, I spent some time looking around the two artists works to choose an image with text from both that I was attracted to. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time doing this, I was more interested in what I seemed to be drawn to as interesting pieces rather than analysis at this stage. I selected “My Proof” by Duane Michals and “Edith and Len” by KayLynn Deveney.
These two photos seemed to initially show two very different relationships and had different photographic and text styles but were linked by the theme of love, so I thought it would be an interesting comparative piece.
Duane Michal’s “My Proof” made me think of the following five words: relatable, longing, sadness, love and revenge. It made me question who the people are in the photo? Does she not love him anymore? Who took the photo and who is the proof for?
Deveney’s “Edith and Len” grid gave me similar thoughts of sadness, purity, love, emotion and realness. Again, my thoughts were around who are Edith and Len? What happened to them? How did KayLynn get to know them?
Both photographers have managed to bring the subjects of the photo to the forefront of my mind. In neither piece of work were my initial thoughts really about the medium or style but of the people and characters in them. I want to know the stories of the people in the photographs, I am drawn into their lives immediately which is what I think makes both pieces of work so powerful. For a photographer to almost make us forget it is a photo and get us as the viewer to purely focus on the story it is trying to tell is telling of how good they are.
Interestingly as well, in both cases, the text enhanced this sense of realness and storytelling. It gives a definite and scripted narrative to the pieces of work. I wish I had been able to view the photograph alone to see if my initial reaction was as strong as with the text.
My Proof Description
My Proof is a black and white photo of a man and woman on a bed. The handwritten caption underneath reads “This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon, when things were still good between us, and she embraced me, and we were so happy It had happened. She did love me. Look, see for yourself!”
The bed looks like any standard bed, it has an everyday feel about it, no fancy decorations. We don’t know if it is their bed, a hotel bed as there are no personal possessions in the photo. The couple is fully dressed sitting on the edge of the bed with the woman leaning against the man with her arm around him. There is a hint of a smile on their face. They look like they could be wearing a 60s style of clothing and hair but it is difficult to tell.
The composition is that the bed takes up the majority of the shot. The couple is to the far side of the bed and almost distant from the bed. The room is lit by a natural window which creates a lot of shadow and dark spaces around the edge of the photo.
Edith and Len Description
Edith and Len is a series of photos and text. There are 19 photographs and 10 date entries of text between some of the photos. As you scroll through, the photos are of an elderly couple, in what looks like their own house as there are a lot of personal possessions. The couple is seated together in two chairs at the far side of the room. There are walking aids in the room to suggest they have some mobility issues.
The second photo is a close up of the woman’s face in what looks like the chair from the first shot. She is elderly with an aged face and there is a neutral, almost anxious feel to her expression as she gazes upwards. It is night from the sky in the background which puts her surroundings in shadow so all you focus on is her expression. Her eyes are dark and you wonder what is on her mind.
The first of the text slides comes next with the ate October 30 (The American style of writing the date) and we are told the seasons are changing, the sky is darker and wetter. This is the first written confirmation that the woman is Edith and the text reads “Edith asked me today if I could imagine what it’s like to sit there all day, every day, the way she did”.
The next photo is of the man from the first photo, he is lying flat out in bed. The composition is such that he is almost not the main focus of the photo, a painting on the wall and some coats fight for your attention. The man does not look well, he has a thin elderly face and it isn’t obvious if he is dead or alive. The next photo is of the woman Edith sitting alone in a hair salon underneath a hairdryer. There is an empty chair next to her and she is slightly out of shot to the far left. She has the same worried, contemplative look on her face as earlier.
The second text piece is dated November 2 but there is no year so we aren’t sure if it is two days after the first entry or years. We are told that Len is ill and Edith is emotional and crying. The writer states it was difficult to photograph her crying so we assume these written logs are from the photographer herself. The next photo is Edith and Len laying in bed, Len looks ill and Edith is lying next to him with her arm draped over him. Their heads are touching in a loving way. The next shot is of Edith opening the curtains to let some light in. Again she is at the far left of the photo, slightly out of shot and there is a large space to her right.
December 18 is the next dated entry. We learn they live in a nursing home and they had been out for Christmas with the other residents and that it was a happy occasion. The next photo is taken over Edith’s shoulder as she looks at a cage with two love birds in. The birds are brightly coloured and sitting together on a perch snuggled together. The next shot is focused on Edith’s arm as she touches the bed where she and Len were laying in an earlier photo.
December 20 entry is where we learn how Len feels. He talks about feeling trapped in the “dead house” and of his admiration for Edith. It is a longer entry than the earlier ones and you get the feeling of the relationship building and more openness between Edith, Len and the photographer. The next photo is a close up of Len with his head in his hands. This is followed by a shot with Len and Edith in the background drinking and eating whilst a cat is on their bed. Again, they are sat together in the chairs.
January 21. This entry feels conflicted, the photographer writes “I don’t think Edith and Len think I’m going to reveal as much about them as I will in my final work” as though perhaps there is an ethical dilemma about how much of their lives should be on show and how they actually feel about it.
The next photo is taken from behind Len as he walks towards Edith and she is holding out her hand towards him. This is followed by Edith helping him down to his chair as she lovingly kisses his head, the cat is back on the bed. The next date entry is March 1 and seems to refer back to the earlier photos of Edith opening the curtains and making the bed. This is followed by the Christmas party photo mentioned earlier so a strong indication the text doesn’t always follow the same order as the photos.
March 14 – we learn Len is unwell and struggling, Edith is very emotional and there is a sense of closeness between the photographer and Edith. The next photo is Edith alone in bed, followed by Len getting shaved by a nurse. April 28 – Len is increasingly confused and the photographer admits to being scared about his wellbeing. Someone called Bonnie is mentioned. The next photo is of Edith walking down a nursing home corridor alone. This is followed again by a close up of Edith and Len together in the bed. Edith is stroking Len’s head.
June 16 – The photographer has told Edith she is leaving and Edith is very sad and cried about it. This is followed by a photo of the reflection of Lillies in a window and with another shot of Edith and Len sitting together in the chairs. June 28 – “Edith seemed very ill and dispirited”. There is an admission that the photographer is questioning if she should have started the project as she is finding it difficult to leave each time. Edith too seems to be struggling with the photographer leaving and is becoming attached to a bear.
Interpretation and Comparison
Duane Michals and KayLynn Deveney are from different eras. Michals work is from the late 1960s and Deveney’s is more contemporary from the 2000s. Although at least 40 years apart, they both use images and text to tell stories of people that make us question our own relationships.
Michals made his work in an era of photojournalism where love and relationships were in the spotlight. As Winterholter comments the couple in “My Proof” are almost lookalikes for the Kennedys (Winterholter, 1997) who were prominent at this time. The 60s almost started this cult of celebrity and us wanting to know intimate details of people’s lives, prior to this, lives were more private and behind closed doors. Michals plays to this with this very intimate photo and story in “My Proof”. We never know who the couple is, or their full story but we are left to speculate about what they were doing before and after the shot, where they are, and what happened to their relationship. As is often the case when we hear glimpses of someone’s life. The themes are still very relevant to modern society where we often see or hear snapshots of people’s lives on social media but unless we live their life we don’t know the full story and are left to fill in the gaps ourselves, often in a far more dramatic way than the true story. As humans, we are natural storytellers and we allow our imaginations to run with small details to build a bigger picture.
Deveney on the other hand helps to fill in a lot more of the details with her photo storybook. I learned that the grid online is just a small snapshot of the full work which has 67 photos and 26 diary entries. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a copy of the full work. I did discover part of Edith and Len’s story, that they are from a Welsh nursing home, Len had fallen and needed care whilst Edith had poor eyesight. They were aged 93 and 92.
Edith and Len is a piece of work that will stay with me for a long time and I wish I could find out even more about it, but there isn’t a great deal available as it was Deveney’s Masters assignment. It is a story of love, care and pure beauty that is haunting at times. It makes me question the relationship between the photographer and the subjects and the ethics of intruding on someone’s life like this. The photos capture some very intimate moments and we know from the writings the impact on Edith and Len at times. Should we be documenting intimate moments like this when at times the subjects don’t seem happy about it, but at the same time, they seem to get comfort and companionship with the photographer. I wonder about the lasting impact on both the couple and the photographer. Growing old and death is something we are scared of and it is right to explore it in a sensitive way like this, viewing these photos and diary entries have made me question old age and what will happen to people I love in the future. This is what makes the work meaningful and especially powerful.
Ideas for my Own Work
Looking at these two artists has made me consider how I could use text to add to the narrative of my work in future. Adding text isn’t something I have done a great deal of in my own work and I am going to experiment with doing so.
In our student area, I have uploaded my Boy with the Apple image and also spent some time looking at the other students work. There are some powerful narrative images in there. I think the ones I am drawn to the most are everyday photos that have a line or two of narrative added to them to tell a story. There is one that a student has posted of her standard office set up with the lines that explain how she almost resents the room.