Biography ~ Michelle Luke
I have exhibited and published the black and white photographs you see and read about here on my site at michelleluke.com, internationally. I love the art and architecture of Europe, I feel more at home there than in the U.S. and it has been an inspiration for my shoots. But I have also been to the Dominican Republic to live and work. Black Narcissus was shot there.
For a while now, my home Montana has been a bolt hole. I returned to care for aging parents and then when I could leave again, the pandemic had set it, so I stayed on. We’ve been blessed with very little COVID, comparatively. So, I hide away and nurture my visions of love and beauty, making them ready for the world. It’s always been a spiritually healing place that I can return to but I never imagined not being able to leave, having the world closed off to me. It gets much too quiet for me here, too culturally arid, and when it does, if funds allow, I take flight. I yearn to be around other artists, thinkers, so much. Most often, I am lacking that here. Now, during the pandemic, my isolation has been profound.
I began as a sculptor. I only took photography at the University of MT because it was required for my degree. But on the very first assignment we were given, to shoot texture, a strange image came into my mind. I saw a man in the bath. I focused on the white porcelain curve of the clawfoot tub, followed by an arc of light gray bathwater, caressing the smooth hip and flank of the man, which went a darker gray than the water. The only black was a hint of his pubic hair in the upper corner. The image was very abstract. Almost like a Sonia Delaunay, although I hadn’t met her work yet, at the time. I saw it clearly in my head and set it up with my lover in the bath, and me standing on a step ladder and shooting straight down into the tub. The image had a very peculiar perspective, and when it went up on the wall with all the other student work, which tended to be a lot of close-ups of tree bark and brick, it was quite shocking. My Photo professor called my sculpture teacher and my art criticism teacher into the room. They were very excited over this image. They decided to regroup at the end of the term. At this second conference, it was decided that something very significant was happening with my eye. I was told I had to continue to take photography, I could continue with sculpture too but photography probably was my voice. I always say photography chose me, I did not choose it. In graduate school, my sculpture professor Michael Hall looked at my photos in a critique and told me I shot like a sculptor—in the round—and exhibited like a frieze. He said he’d never seen anything like it before. I had not realized I did this, but I saw it was true. I was very lucky to be accepted there. The department head of photography at Cranbrook, Carl Toth, was the most intelligent man I have ever known. He was so learned in so many areas and he could see what you had that was unique and encourage or challenge that aspect of you. He gave me a very firm foundation under my ideas. He gave me Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad, to watch, and Maugerite Duras’ The Lover, to read. All very important to my development.
One of the main things you need to know about me is that I previsualize everything I shoot. All my images continued to come into my mind before I shot them, just as the very first did. It feels like a gift I have been sent from some kind of filmic God, to document, and put into the world. I follow their instructions to the best of my capabilities, staging it and shooting it as it has been sent to me, in my mind.
While Cartier Bresson had The Decisive Moment, I think of my work as The Enhanced Moment. I take the moment that has come to me, and set it into slow motion, expanding it, studying it from every angle, and from more than one pair of eyes, more than one state of mind, lifting my viewer to another place and time.
After graduate school in Michigan, I moved to New Haven, Connecticut. I wanted to live in NYC but could not afford to. I had a friend in Connecticut with a lumpy sofa bed. I took the train in once a week to take my work around trying to get a gallery. Everyone shut the door in my face. I decided to get brave and call Ralph Gibson. He was very gracious and invited me the very next Saturday. When I showed him my work, he told me a lovely story of his having met Bill Brandt when he was a young man. Bill Brandt told Ralph Gibson that he was happy because he could see his roots under Ralph’s tree. Ralph Gibson told me he could see his roots under my tree. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, because I love both his images and the work of Bill Brandt too. I would like to think that Henri Cartier-Bresson would tell me the same thing, that he would see the links in our chain. He has most certainly been important to my way of seeing, and my way of thinking about moments in time. You will see, I did not make any of their work, but I fed on it and made my own. Ralph Gibson put me in touch with Jean Claude Lemagny at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. He told me Lemagny helped him a great deal and he thought he would help me too. He did. He became a mentor for me. I mailed him small books (like what I will send you but less sophisticated), and he wrote me back excited with input about each one, and suggestions for reading, like Gaston Bachelard’s, On Poetic Imagination, and Reverie, which became seminal for me. The fact that he saw what I was doing and recognized its importance, that he got it, got me, was the most significant gift he gave me. I got an Arts Council Grant from the State of Connecticut and left immediately for Paris. Lemagny gave me his last exhibition before he retired. It was my first museum exhibition. I’m not sure I understood at the time, how huge that was.
My theme is always lovers. Love is sacred. The intimate relationship shared by lovers is distinct. It provides the most transformative interaction humans can experience. This is separate from sex alone. On another plane. This provides our greatest commonality in humanity. We need love. Love is the source of everything.