The Life of Bones

Diana Michener’s fascination with bones began when she was a child in Arizona. Her father, who was a lawyer in Boston, had taken a position with a cattle, oil and agricultural company, and he moved the family west. He was also a serious horseman, and so Diana and her sister lived with ranch hands while he rode herd. She remembers, “We went to a one-room schoolhouse and it was such a happy time.” The happiness was increased by discovering bones during her walks in the arid landscape: “As a child I loved collecting bones and because of the wind and the rain and the sun, they would get so white. When you see bones in the landscape, you see them quite vibrantly.”

In the Bones project she reclaimed her childhood— “it was always with me, but I had forgotten about it and then it came back in France.” In that country it wasn’t a case of coming across bones underfoot in the landscape but of gaining access to collections held in natural history, anatomy and zoological museums: “Once a drawer was opened in the depository and I saw these objects, I was both mystified and enchanted. It’s quite powerful when you’re in a room with boxes of bones. You feel there are a lot of souls with you.”

Diana Michener, Plate VI, from Bones, 2021, platinum/palladium prints. Courtesy the artist and Steidl.

Michener had been working on “Trance,” a landscape project that involved considerable travel, various landscapes, an assistant and a range of photographic paraphernalia. She thought of the bones as a shift in attitude and scale, from infinity to the intimacy of a small object. But, she says, “that was a myth on my part because while they might be smaller in size, they’re not smaller in symbolic value.”

Her appreciation for the bone as symbol is contained in the wide range of skull images included in the portfolio; “The bones are the holder of the structure, but the holder of life, the brain, is in the skull.” In Plate XIX there are four columns of skulls, some with pathologist’s lines and one with the number 5, that put you in mind of a topography made of rounded white ovals, or an image out of Moholy-Nagy; there are skulls with a sense of collapse that makes them indelibly memento mori, and in Plate VI the skull is a perfect sphere, like a sculpture by Brancusi or Barbara Hepworth. The image enters the territory of modernist form-making, as does Plate XII, which moves from art to alien in a single apprehension. The final image in the portfolio is a single, resolutely clear bone sitting on a textured surface. The background shows three close-valued sections of black with such exquisitely captured tonalities that it looks like the photographic equivalent of an early Brice Marden monochrome. The seen subject of the picture is a bone but the felt subject of the picture is time. It is a photograph of what timelessness looks like.

Michener recognizes these associations after the photograph has been printed; they are not part of her awareness in the taking. “When I’m photographing, I’m trying so much to be with the skull as a skull, as a carrier of feelings and structure, that I don’t relate to anybody else at the time. I wanted to honour the bones; I didn’t want to honour invention. I was trying to get into what is a bone and what does it carry. I find that I’m carrying a lot of weight with these bones.”

They are weighty and are not easily pinned down. When we consider bones there is a tendency to see them not as evidence of the end of something but as the possibility of something else. Plate V is a pair of bones where the four fragments at the end look like miniature carved, hatted monks, or chess pieces for a fanciful endgame. Plate VIII is a congregation of six standing femurs with packing crates behind them; they all seem animated; the one on the right-hand side looks like a preening, long-necked egret.

Diana Michener, Plate V, from Bones, 2021, platinum/palladium prints. Courtesy the artist and Steidl.

Bones is a portfolio of 22 platinum/paladium prints, published in a limited edition boxed set by Steidl in 2021. Michener describes the medium as “lush and voluptuous. I’m a black and white printer, and you can’t believe how beautiful the blacks are. You’re in awe of the black. They’re thrilling.”

Plate I is a human pelvis, which we initially recognize and then begin to see as a macabre mask with particularly dark eyeholes. Plate III shows a femur and tibia, and behind the former is a cast shadow that looks like the disintegrating head of a flower. The black occurs most decisively in the shadow. Sometimes the mechanics of setting up the subject involves simply placing the bones, but there are occasions where Michener relies on a more dramatic arrangement. She prefers natural lighting, and there are images where what is most significant is her engagement with the shadow. Plate XVI shows a pelvis, rib cage and backbone with a scoliotic curvature. The shadow cast by the rib cage is spectacular and creates a double presence, a dramatic encounter between a white bone protagonist and a black shadowed antagonist. The image is a rich doppelgänger.

The portfolio is comprised of a selection of bones from different animals, not always identifiable, but does include snakes, a walrus, a large grazing animal, various canine and feline creatures, perhaps a small deer and humans. Some of the human specimens are deformed because they came from an archaeological dig at a leper colony and ended up in an eccentric private collection in France. Among them is a headless skeleton with extremely long arms and legs and feet that are bowed and misshapen. “I thought the skeleton was incredibly moving, out of proportion and tender,” she says. Her reaction is typical of her engagement with the bones and the emotional resonance they hold for her. Plate XVIII is a cluster of five vertebrae that fills the entire frame of the image edge to edge. They lead her to speculate about the role that bone plays in the structure of the human body: “A lot of my passion for bones is that I cannot get over how our body, or animal bodies, is put together. We’re not like a cathedral. We don’t have nails. We have muscles and tendons and things that work to hold the bones together, but we don’t have what modern architecture has. So it’s astonishing to see the beauty and the brilliance of the form.”

Taken together, the 22 prints comprise a stunning portfolio. “There is a larger story of life because each time you pick up a bone you are the last witness of some body or some animal,” she says. “So it is a bigger story, but it’s not a narrative as a whole, the kind where you go to the middle part and then you go to the end. This story has the beginning and the end right in it.” ❚