Crocker offers a holiday treat: the celebrity portraits of Duane Michals

Meryl  Streep, 1975, by Duane Michals.
Meryl Streep, 1975, by Duane Michals. Crocker Art Museum

Though he worked as an editorial photographer for major periodicals including Esquire, Life, Mademoiselle, and Vogue, Duane Michals’ name was not familiar to me. Spanning six decades, the first comprehensive overview of his portrait photography at the Crocker Art Museum features 125 portraits primarily of celebrities from the worlds of art, literature and show business.

Many of the works are small, black and white photos recently rediscovered by Michals in his studio, not the usual large-scale prints on archival paper so common in museum shows today. At first that was disturbing, but in time their humble size became appealingly intimate.

Beginning in the 1960s, Michals turned away from established approaches to documentary and fine art photography, striving to shoot his images in available light in his subjects’ natural environments. Rather than striving for “the decisive moment” in the way of Henri Cartier Bresson or carefully composing photographs to convey insights into the aesthetic or emotional character of his subjects like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz, his images are distinguished by an array of devices and sometimes extra-photographic elements.

Often playful, sometimes poetic, sometimes silly, hand-written annotations are applied to many of the photographs. A shot from above of the Mamas and Papas lying down with their heads touching is labeled “A giggling gaggle of Mamas and Papas.” An appropriately creepy photo of Stephen King seen through a huge spider’s web that obscures and distorts his features bears a parodied poem: “Oh what a wicked web King weaves with ghastly mayhem up his sleeve.”

Several of his strongest photos employ sequenced images. A series of enigmatic color portraits of Tilda Swinton as an androgynous Sibyl (an ancient Greek prophetess) in a veil that slowly falls away is gorgeous. Also impressive is a hilarious color sequence of Michael Richards (Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld) that presents him as an oblivious, inept Monsieur Hulot, a comic figure in French films portrayed by Jaques Tati.

Using multiple exposures, reflections and uncommon vantage points, he gives us a sexy double portrait of Shelley Duvall, a glamorous but sad double image of Eartha Kitt leaning against her reflection in a dressing room mirror and a haunting photo of poet Maya Angelou behind Venetian blinds that calls up the title of her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

He also creates photo-collages and paints on some of his photographs with varying degrees of success. His collage-like image of photographer Dave Coulter with hand-applied oil paint is ethereally surreal, but several early tintypes, antique photo buttons and other vintage photographs with hand-done overlays of painted abstractions struck me as awkward marriages.

His photographs of visual artists range from intriguing to predictable. His images of a wrapped Christo with his head emerging from a bundle and Rene Magritte in an upside down bowler hat, his figure covered by the shadow of a huge bowler, struck me as obvious, but two photos of a young, fresh-faced Andy Warhol with his mother tugged at my heart.

A few images seemed to comment on or echo the aesthetic visions of their subjects. One of the strongest is a shot of Joseph Cornell, the maker of poetic boxed constructions. In it, Cornell is back-lit by a glowing sheer-curtained window, his distorted shadow form eaten away by the light as he ponders a clutter of objects on a vanity whose mirror reflects the smear of a ghostly figure.

His portrait of Jean Dubuffet, the originator of art brut and champion of “outsider” art, places the artist’s bold, brutish, paleolithic profile against one of his raw, intuitive, straight-from-the-id abstractions. And he offers a charming image of the reclusive, eccentric painter known as Balthus with his elegant Japanese wife Setsuko holding a hand mirror up to his aged, aristocratic face.

In addition to Stephen King, he gives images of several writers, among them Eugene Ionesco, John Cheever, Tennessee Williams and E. L. Doctorow. They range from an image of Susan Sontag that captures her serious and tragic spirit to a nearly obscured image of Joan Didion behind a geometric frosted glass panel. You’d never know who it was if not for the title, but it reveals, perhaps, her cool sensibility and desire for privacy.

There are, of course many photos of movie stars, pop singers, musicians, comedians and dancers. These are mostly instantly recognizable people to whom he has had access: a young and incredibly beautiful Meryl Streep, glamorous shots of Barbra Streisand in the early 1960s, a mysterious photo of Peter O’Toole in which you see only his perfectly groomed blond wave and his eloquent hands, a relaxed Sean Penn and Madonna on a New York street, as well as pictures of film directors Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Lina Wertmuller and Louis Malle.

Crocker curator Kristina Perea Gilmore has provided several interpretive stations that make the exhibition welcoming and fun for visitors. Among them: an informal living room with sofa, comfortable chairs and books by and about people in Michals’ photographs; a listening station with earphones that plays music by performers from Eartha Kitt to Sting; and a trippy installation of a large round mirror made up of many small round mirrors that do strange things to your head and provide a fascinating background for selfies.

Duane Michals: The Portraitist - Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street. Through January 6. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day. Admission: $6-$12. Free for Crocker members and children 5 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.” Information: (916) 808-7000 www.crockerart.org