Duane Michals
Getting To The Heart With A Wry Eye

Photos © 2003, Duane Michals, All Rights Reserved

"The keyword is having something to express," says Duane Michals. "When you look at my photographs you are looking into my mind."

For over four decades Michals has gone straight to the heart, producing images and words that pose universal questions like what is life? What is death? What is God? Now, turning 71 years old, those questions are more real and have taken on a new urgency. "Before, the questions were in the abstract, a sort of healthy curiosity," Michals says. "But now, though they are primarily the same metaphysical questions, they are more intense. The Buddhists say that man does the work of his life and then spends the last part of his life preparing for death. I find that very attractive so I am putting things in their place and going back to my original self, asking, what are the things of value? How should a man lead his life and what should he pursue?

Modes Of Expression
Michals' unconventional approach to his art combines images, poetry, prose, and on occasion, paint. It is a history of his life and thoughts and can be seen in a diversity of books: Real Dreams, Now Becoming Then, The Essential Duane Michals, the children's book, Upside Down, Inside Out and Backwards (or Downside Up, Outside In and Frontwards, depending on whether you are seeing the front or back cover). Questions Without Answers was his most philosophical volume and in Salute, Walt Whitman Michals pays homage to his hero who "addressed subjects I never thought of before." Michals bought his first edition of Leaves of Grass with his paperboy money when he was just a child.

Is Duane Michals a photographer? A philosopher? A writer? All of the above? I suspect that for him a photograph is the framework of a thought from which the image takes on a life of its own. In a series of photographs titled "Paradise Regained" a young man sits with his hands lightly folded while a woman stands behind him. The room is spare. Both are fully clad. In a series of six images each appears with fewer clothes. Small trees begin to grow around them. In the final image the trees have grown to surround the now fully unclothed couple. This is man in his true state, the original man, Michals believes, saying, "When we get rid of the hip clothes and the furniture and are taken out of our air conditioned cars we are essentially like Rousseau's savages." With his inordinate humor he recalls once telling his mother that we were but sophisticated animals and she answered, "You, may be, but I'm not!"

The Sage As Fool
Enter the other Duane Michals with the irreverent, cheeky humor that he admits is downright silly. "The more serious you are, the sillier you have to be," he says. "I have a great capacity for foolishness. It's essential. Without it you're just another pretty face!"

Much of Michals' impish wit is at the expense of other photographers. ("Photography has the worst case of ancestor worship. They're still lighting candles for Stieglitz.") To a great extent the photography done today does not sit well with him. In a recent show at Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York he did a funny takeoff on the new generation of photographers.

("Who is Sidney Sherman?")
The pitch of his voice rises. "Photographers make a career ad nauseum out of books that are all alike--oh please, take my wife... It's all about making it big--sexy--vulgar...make it dead or shocking and the question of profundity in the work is lacking. It's a lot of visual noise."

Michals thinks and talks fast and says whatever flows through his mind. "I love my mind and pay attention to it. The weirdest things pop into my head--it's like finding money. Nothing is what it appears to be. We live in an absurd ball. I'm in a rented body!" Life is a matter of definition and Michals is the event.

With his baldhead and piercing eyes Michals could be taken for a prophet (with a touch of harangue). He has a surrealist, "out there" quality mixed with a sensitivity and intellectualism that is awesome.

Remember Magritte's painting "This is not a pipe"? Michals has playfully elaborated on his photograph of the painting with a superimposed photograph and freely brushed paint strokes and has titled it "Ceci n'est pas une photo d'une pipe."

(This is not a photo of a pipe.)

His Own Path
His refusal to comply with the traditional practice of photography may be traced to the fact that Michals is self-taught and unimpeded by convention. Unlike photographers who he says simply trust their eyeballs, he avails himself of simple and basic photo legerdemain like sandwiching negatives, blurring and double exposing images, using long exposures and whatever manipulation he needs to enhance his ideas.

A Life Of Work
Michals is unerringly directed, however, and has followed a path to success that began with a degree from the University of Denver in 1953. After serving in the army he trained as a graphic designer at the Parsons School of Design and later worked for Dance Magazine, Time, and other periodicals of the time. In '58 he went to visit the Soviet Union, carrying a camera with him "like all the other tourists." Photography became his day job and by '59 he had his first exhibition in the company of Gary Winogrand. By '60 he was shooting for Esquire, Vogue, and Mademoiselle. Commercial photography allowed him to support his exhibition work and one of his most poignant images, "Black is Ugly," came out of his work on an advertising campaign. In the late '60s he began to add text to his photographs and galleries worldwide were showing his work. French Vogue recently did a science issue and asked Michals to do a piece on quantum physics, a subject in which he is very interested. A show of this work will take place in Dusseldorf, Germany, in the fall. Awards have been abundant, the latest, a gold medal for photography from the National Arts Club in New York in '94.

This Old House
"Art is a nuance," Michals told me when I first met him 25 years ago. "It should remind you of something you've forgotten but known all along." I recalled these words when I saw his recent work, which he calls a photographic memoir with verse. "I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, doing some work and went to visit my old house in McKeesport," he says. "The house was abandoned for 10 years and the garden was overgrown. I went into the room where I was born 70 years ago. It was moving and upsetting. `The House I Once Called Home' became my latest project and since most of the principles in my family are dead I wrote things about my mother and father and our relationship. Photographers love these old beat-up houses but rarely do they know who lived there. I did. I photographed the rooms and the overgrown yard and then double exposed pictures I had taken in these same rooms 30 years ago with my family there."

Karie Vincent, Executive Director of the New Bedford Art Museum where an exhibition of this work was held last summer, says, "The photographs and writing are poignant and take you on a journey. Michals is going back into his past in a way that is touching, painful, and uplifting all at once and it speaks to everyone's experience. I think Michals has a gift for helping us to see that joy and pain are not so far apart. He shows us that the significance of pain is not something we should avoid. It helps us to be full people."

Michals' interior life is rich and his sense of humor keeps him from taking himself too seriously. "I am conceptual, someone who works with ideas," he says, "and that doesn't make me some dimwit who fills a whole room with feathers. Photography has given me everything. I haven't worked in 40 years (I never think I work) and have never had a studio. In that sense I have never been in business. I have a small room in the basement and very little equipment since I photograph in available light. My advice is to find something you like to do and then find someone to pay you to do it."

With age Michals has become more intimate and small things have taken on more meaning, like looking into the heart of a flower from his garden and collecting natural forms. "There is a great deal of pleasure in that," he says, "and I see things more personally. For example, there is a sliver of light that I track. It leaves my living room in October and returns in the middle of January. I feel like an Egyptian looking at that wall."

Michals' vision now transcends the medium and he reminds us once again that it is not about photographing or writing. It is always about expression.