Duane Michal’s The Return of the Prodigal Son


Michals’ work is a modern interpretation of the age-old tale of unconditional love and forgiveness, so popular within the tradition of Western art history. Photography’s ability to illustrate sequence is used to the greatest effect in Michals’ telling of this story. Michals is known for his “photo stories,” narrative sequences of “…quasi-cinematic groupings of five to fifteen images.”[1] Michals was inspired to develop this artistic convention after his 1965 visit to the studio of Surrealist artist Rene Magritte.[2] Magritte demonstrated how to dissociate meaning from appearance, inspiring Michals to explore further the many possible relationships that can exist between what something looks like and what it means. In his photo stories, Michals uses the illustrative power of photography to stage dream-like, almost mythical situations that inexplicably allude to the innermost, secret lives of his characters.[3] The viewer can imagine what the characters are going through, but there is never a clear answer in the wrought and emotive scenes. In one of his text-only photographs, Michals wrote:

How foolish of me to believe that it would be that easy. I had confused the appearance of trees and automobiles and people with reality itself, and believed that a photograph of these appearances to be a photograph of it. It is a melancholy truth that I will never be able to photograph it and can only fail. I am a reflection photographing other reflections within a reflection. To photograph reality is to photograph nothing.[4]


Michals playfully made a photograph that does not contain any images to comment on the viewer’s misguided dependence on images. Michals believes that nothing can be understood based on appearance alone, spurring him to create images that allude to truth but never claim to be truthful. There are obvious universal and human truths imbedded The Return of the Prodigal Son but nothing about what is depicted is honest. Michals carefully staged the miniature drama that unfolds in this series, and although everything that has been photographed exists in real life, the story of these people and things is nothing but an image. This is made apparent by the mere fact that the viewer is bearing witness to a most intimate situation. In the act of viewing, the viewer is supposed to realize that in the real world, she would not have access to so private an exchange between father and son. In the world of the photograph, however, Michals has made it so that the viewer can see and effectively makes the act of viewing the ultimate surrealist experience. This is achieved in part by the small size of the objects, which forces the viewer to come into close contact in the act of viewing. With proximity, the viewer is forced to confront the physicality of the ink on the paper while investing in the story. What is real and truthful about the image is this interaction and what the viewer brings to the piece, not the world within the photograph.

The world within the photograph is still undoubtedly a significant part of the piece, especially in the case of The Return of the Prodigal Son. Michals chose a parable that has been illustrated so many times at this point that it is almost an art historical rite of passage. In 1995, both the Yale University Art Gallery and the Davison Art Center at Wesleyan presented an exhibition called “The Prodigal Son Narratives 1480 – 1980” that featured works by Durer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, and this photo story by Michals. The choices Michals made with regard to his retelling of this narrative are significant. For instance, in a rare occurrence, Michals photographed himself, playing the role of the father and stripping down completely.[5] He also chose to show the main characters at the moment of complete and perfect redemption. As a homosexual, Michals identified strongly with the role of the son in the prodigal son narrative, but chose to place himself within the role of the father instead. Michals believed that “‘empathy is key’” in this parable and chose to take on the role of the father because “ ‘the greatest thing you can do is to protect others.’”[6] This emphasis on unconditional forgiveness and complete sheltering of the weak is demonstrated by the cyclical nature of the series. Photographs one and five are completely still images, with both father and son firmly planted in their respective positions. At first, the father is comfortably seated in his chair, oblivious to his son’s wrongdoings, while the son maintains a gesture of deep shame and hesitation. Photographs two, three, and four show a great deal of change and motion, as the father works to remove his son’s shame by taking it on himself. The figures blur as they change, as if the inner shifts in emotions cause physical change their bodies. By the final photograph of the sequence, the father and son have switched positions, with the father bearing the son’s shame completely. The fifth photograph is like the first in its rootedness and lack of motion. The two men are locked in their positions firmly because the father has made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his son. This brings the series full circle, showing there is no difference in the father’s love for his son before and after the wrong has been admitted. This act of unconditional love is so emotionally charged that the viewer wonders if Michals’ choice to depict the forgiving father speaks to the kind of relationship Michals had with his own father. The viewer is encouraged to question and wonder, but ultimately must go on unanswered.





Hallmark Photographic Collection., and Keith F. Davis. An American Century of Photography : From Dry-Plate to Digital : The Hallmark Photographic Collection. 2nd ed. Kansas City, Mo.: Hallmark Cards Inc., in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

O’Dench, Ellen G. “Prodigal Son Narratives 1480 – 1980.” New Haven and Middletown, Connecticut: Yale University Art Gallery and Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, 1995.



[1] Hallmark Photographic Collection. and Keith F. Davis, An American Century of Photography : From Dry-Plate to Digital : the Hallmark Photographic Collection, 2nd ed. (Kansas City, Mo.: Hallmark Cards Inc., in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1999), 399.

[2] Ibid., 311.

[3] Ibid., 400.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ellen G. O’Dench, “Prodigal Son Narratives 1480 – 1980,” (New Haven and Middletown, Connecticut: Yale University Art Gallery and Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, 1995), 28.

[6] Ibid.

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