Duane Michals is a renowned photographer, with books, exhibits, retrospectives and decades of acclaim for his images. But there’s a word he prefers more than photographer to describe himself: Storyteller.
“I’m a natural,” says the 86-year-old who can also say, “I’ve done everything in photography – I am the complete photographer” without sounding grandiose.
As the New York Review of Books put it, Michals “has worked in both utilitarian black-and-white and luxuriant color, produced slapstick self-portraits, evoked erotic daydreams, pamphleteered against art world fashions and painted whimsical abstract designs on vintage photographs. … Michals remains aggressively idiosyncratic, the curator of his own overstuffed, beguiling, disorderly imagination.”
Photography fans can expect a rollicking good time when Michals chats with Chris Boot, executive director of the Aperture Foundation, as part of the Focus on the Story International Photo Festival. They will discuss Michals’ career June 9 from 11 a.m. to noon at the auditorium at Johns Hopkins SAIS in D.C.
Boot calls Michals a unique figure in photography and recalls how Michaels’ work influenced him and other students in London in 1980s art school.
Michals’ career began in fashion and commercial art in mid-century New York. But he is most known for staging series of photographs and adding hand-written captions to complete the stories.
Boot will ask him about his career, technique, life – and role in shaping post-Stonewall gay sensibility in visual art, as DC celebrates Pride 49 years after the New York City uprising credited as the spark of the modern gay rights movement.
“Our conversation will be about his practice, his history, and his journey in photography,” Boot said. “It will be a conversation with pictures.
“He has this sort of impish way. He’s always funny. He’s always profound. But he’ll take this in his own direction, and this will be a Duane performance at some level. He’s always a little bit role playing. He’s a unique character.”
Adding performance to photography
Boot credits Michals with bringing an element of performance to photography, most of it done away from the studio in Michals’ beloved natural light. Michals’ conceptual work incorporates “often profound narratives” with the sequenced images.
“Some are relatively straight portraits, but you can see the whole performance side,” Boot said. “He opened up a channel within photography for performance.”
Michals shares a bit of sensibility with his friend and fellow Pittsburgh native, Andy Warhol. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Denver, spent two years in the Army, and studied at the Parsons School of Design with an eye on graphic design.
He’s self-taught in photography, which he discovered on a 1958 trip to the Soviet Union. Shots from that vacation made up his first exhibit at the Underground Gallery in New York.
Over the years, he photographed the 1968 Summer Olympics for the Mexican government; the filming of “The Great Gatsby” for Vogue (in natural light); published books and had other shows of his portraits and narrative series; won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; and even photographed the cover of “Synchronicity,” the landmark 1983 post-punk album by The Police.
Like he said, himself, Michals has done everything.
We spoke with him last week and found Boot’s “impish” observation on point. Michals was open, talkative, charming and funny. Here are some highlights of the conversation, and a sign of what attendees might expect at his onstage chat with Boot.
‘Telling stories, right from the beginning’
“My own domain has always been telling stories, right from the beginning,” he says on the phone from his home in Manhattan.
His commercial work for publications like Life and Vogue gave way to his innovations of staging series of shots and the scribbled narrative on them.
“That was a time when reportage reigned supreme — inventing a storyline was unheard of,” he recalled. “I didn’t have any role models. There was nobody doing this kind of thing.
“It was like a haiku, the five or six pictures. You have an event occur on any subject — loss, desire, people missing each other. Things which were essentially not photographable. Nobody can photograph a dream.
“My photographs are always an approximation. The most important things are invisible. Your anxiety, your dreams. I always wanted to deal with deeper issues” than the “facts” recorded by the camera.
An intriguing ‘Chance Meeting’ and gay desire
As an example, he cites his series “Chance Meeting,” six black-and-white images presented to tell a story of two men passing.
“You know there’s more to it,” he said.
The two men are fully clothed and exchange nothing more than backward glances. But the desire is clear.
Michals frequently photographed desire – gay and otherwise. He didn’t hide his gayness in his work, he said, but he’s not interested in mere reportage, especially those of cliched images of homoeroticism.
“I’m not a Mapplethorpe gay,” Michals said, comparing himself to the late, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
“I’ve always dealt with gay experiences. It’s who I am. I could tell you very clearly what it feels like to be an 86-year-old, bald, gay man,” Michals added, noting his lifelong partner died last year. “But you have to bring insight. It’s not just anatomy.
“Mapplethorpe showed exactly what people suspected gay people did. It’s cliché-land and comforts people like (the late anti-gay preacher Jerry) Falwell.
“I’m much more subversive. You’re not going to see any (sex acts) in my pictures.”
More than just facts
Michals said he considers himself an expressionist, that his work isn’t about photography per se.
“Photography represents facts really well, but that’s it,” Michals said.
Take a straight-on portrait shot of a woman, for instance. “Was she a bitch? Did she cheat on her husband? Was she Catholic? Ambitious?”
The drive to provide narrative drew some negative feedback in the early days. At his first gallery show, a visitor scoffed, “This isn’t photography,” about the series of images and handwritten text.
“Who defined photography?” Michaels thought. “The definition hasn’t been written yet.”
Michals doesn’t offer details about his “process” or any formulas, just his own preferences and principles. He loves natural light and the process of solving “problems” in shooting on location.
He hates being confined by studios and their “enormous” limitations.
He loves risk. “You can’t grow without it,” Michals said. “Creating means you don’t already know what you’re doing.”
He also values being comfortable with mistakes – and not needing approval from others.
And as a still-busy photographer (in Spain on a commercial shoot in May), Michals is a relatively new convert to the church of digital.
“I’m amazed by it!” he said. “I love digital. I say fuck film. Digital is so much better.
“I’m very busy. You won’t believe it at my age. I used to do everything by myself, but now I have a number of people working for me. Without digital, we’d still be in Spain working. You correct on the spot, you can adjust, you can crop – you can do everything.
“I’m not a photo snob.”
The embrace of digital is typical of how he keeps moving forward. Michals has a book coming out this fall in England of his earlier “Empty in New York” images, a show next year at the Morgan Library, maybe another book – and a new passion: short films.
Telling stories, creating images, mixing new tools with lifelong principles in his craft.
“The complete photographer” keeps going.
All images © Duane Michals