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Duane Michals by Sabine Mirlesse

Decades after his first foray into painting, photographer Duane Michals recently opened a new exhibition of painted tintypes at DC Moore Gallery in New York. It is evidence of his tireless instinct to challenge the limits of the construction or deconstruction of photography as a medium. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Michals is probably most comfortable when reinventing himself and his work, errors and all, and truly takes personally the notion that it is an artist’s duty to evolve and explore, rather than simply keep doing what he does best, what brings him the highest acclaim, or what audiences seem to initially adore.


Last November, I had the good fortune of stumbling into a screening and artist talk coordinated during the Paris Photo festival of a new documentary about Duane Michals, entitled the The Man Who Invented Himself. As I sat in the back row listening to this artist three times my age, I couldn’t help but think about how much he has to say at a moment when my own generation is tweeting endlessly yet saying in fact, very little. At 81 years old, he is full of opinions, laughter, outrage, and energy. Mr. Michals was gracious enough to spend an evening with me in his Manhattan home talking about his work, as well as his thoughts on God and his undying interest in the metaphysical.

Duane Michals FIRE AWAY!

Sabine Mirlesse So, how are you?

DM I’m very free, the freest I’ve ever been in my whole life.
I like being old, and that certainly is a scary thing to say. You have to remember that the bill always comes due. People don’t understand that.

SM Where do you come from?

DM McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Andy Warhol was also born in McKeesport. . . but they got uppity and moved to Pittsburgh. My dad was a steel worker. The most I could have hoped for given my socio-economic background was to teach high school art in West Smithland, Pennsylvania, have three kids, still be a Catholic, and be suicidal.

SM So many of your generation were likely to stay whether or not they were happy in that situation. . .

DM And they made their parents very happy.

SM And themselves miserable?

DM Exactly. But also being a gay person . . . I could have gotten married I mean, I dated but ultimately, it wasn’t an option. Don’t forget I graduated in 1949 from high school. I was seventeen—I was like seventeen going on twelve.

SM I read that you actually didn’t discover photography until you went to Russia in the 1950s.

DM Yes that’s right, Russia in 1958, I was 26 years old.

SM What brought you there?

DM Well, when I was in McKeesport I said to myself, Self, I will go to New York City. I will have a great friend and have adventures. My bottom line was always having adventures, which are very scary because they’re adventures, not going to get the paper on the corner. When I worked at Time Inc. at the height of the Cold War, I found out I could go to Russia for 1000 dollars for a tour. I was making $5000 a year so that was a lot of money, but I borrowed 500 dollars from my parents and went. The key was, though—I borrowed a camera. I’d taken a photo course but it was useless. I figured simply that I was going to Russia—I should take pictures.
One of the things that separates me from other people and other photographers is that I have a great curiosity and I never like doing the same thing twice. I always said I’d shoot first and ask questions later. The comfort zone is doing what one has done ad nauseum—you know like, Cindy Sherman—if I see another self-portrait I’m going to vomit. People like that become brands and then they just repeat the brand over and over again. Why change when you’ve got a good thing going, I suppose?
I have two criteria for my subjects: One, it can’t be something that I’ve seen before. Second, it has to be funny. I think it’s very important to be foolish. I can’t stand serious artists; they take themselves too seriously.

SM Your work takes on serious subjects, though . . .

DM It is serious. But if you’re very serious you have to be very foolish to balance it out. I could do something very serious but I could do something ridiculous.

SM Do you remember the first things you were photographing?

DM When I went to Russia, I started doing a lot of portraits. I learned how to say: May I take your picture? So I would stop Russians in the street and take their picture—something I would never do in New York. But somehow the novelty of not being Russian in Moscow at the time, well. . .

SM Sometimes getting out of town gives you the anonymity and the balls to try things out you might never try at home.

DM Exactly. You know, it was all on a lark. I wasn’t taking myself seriously as a photographer. I borrowed a camera, they wanted to give me a light meter and I wouldn't take it. Here is my photo education: when you’re outside in bright light you put the thing on 16 and you put it on 250 or 500 or something, when you’re outside and it’s cloudy you put the thing on 16 and you put it on 60, and when you’re inside, you go by the window and you put the thing on 2.8 and the other thing on 30. That’s what I did and all my exposures were perfect. That was my totally education in photography.

SM So we should tell people to save the hundred grand they are going to spend on a BFA education?

DM Yes! I was shocked. I don’t get it. I gave a graduation talk at The New School and I asked one of the students how much money they owed and he told me around 20000 dollars. I couldn’t believe it. Indentured servitude! And you know what they have to show for it? When they walk out they have a portfolio containing a hundred pictures of their girlfriend’s ass. That’s it. They sit around in seminars and talk about each other’s work and then they’re on the street. It’s pathetic. It’s like the cost of buying an apartment.

I told my parents at 28 that I was going to be a photographer (I hadn’t done anything!) . . . and my mother said, But you never went to photography school! The great thing about my work is that I never went to school for it, that’s my great saving grace. I never learned the rules. They have to teach you something in schools—so they teach you the rules. A good school will free you to be yourself, but most aren’t like that.

SM I thought a good school was supposed to teach you the rules and the history of the rules, and then why you should break them?

DM But you can do that all on your own. You don’t need school. See, I’ve always been self-motivated. I never needed anyone to give me an assignment. When I was in high school, I used to prepare for the scholastic contests. I would paint all summer on my own. I always liked working towards a goal, like a contest or an exhibition. I would constantly give myself assignments. What schools should do is free you to be you, and how to find your thing. I found my thing and my thing is . . . many things! I keep evolving. At 81, I’m doing really interesting new work that nobody has ever done before. I knew there was a space between photography and painting and I’ve now found a way to fill it.

SM So you got back from Russia to New York and then what happened?

DM I came to New York ostensibly not to be a photographer but to have an adventure. I love books. I will spend money on books and magazines that I will never spend on clothes.

SM What astrological sign are you?

DM I’m a very typical Aquarian. My birthday was just a couple of days ago. I was 81 on the 18th. 8 and 1 and then 1 and 8, two nines equal eighteen. I like to play with numbers. I love playing with language. I’m always amusing myself.

My friend Fred and I have been together we’re in our 53rd year and he’s a Taurus and very typical of his sign.

SM Stubborn? That’s the stereotype.

DM Yes! Once he makes his mind up, you can’t change it. It’s written in marble. We are extremely typical of our signs.

SM It’s damn inspiring that you guys have been together for 53 years. May I ask how the two of you met?

DM Sure, I’m always curious to know how people met. We met at the gym. He was an architect and I also am very interested by architecture. We both wanted the same thing. We’re not at all typical gay people.

SM Then what exactly is a typical gay person?

DM Think of Mapplethorpe. I think Mapplethorpe was such a disaster for gay people. For somebody who was so professionally gay he knew very little about the subject. He worked exclusively in clichés.

SM In an interview you did for BOMB in 1987 with David Seidner, you had particularly strong opinions about the photographic medium. I believe you were 55 years old at the time and I wanted to ask you if now, nearly 30 years later, if you still feel the same way—

DM I’m very opinionated. I cannot stand people without opinions. I mean, how can you be 81 years old and not have an opinion?

SM Were you opinionated as a young man? You mentioned in that interview that the older you got the less you realized you knew. . .

DM I have opinions about certain things, but fundamentally, so much of myself was programmed in my DNA—I was programmed to be 5’8", bald by the time I was thirty, I was programmed to be gay. None of these are choices. These are all givens. I have what I call psycho-aesthetic inclinations. Mozart was writing music when he was ten. Other people have athletic inclinations—and they call them "naturals." Somehow, many of us seem to be born with certain inclinations and certain talents—all of these are givens. But I have the sense that I am not just an entity. I feel more and more that I am an event. You are an event, a wiggling of the spider web of consciousness. My identifiable “I”-ness is spilling over the borders of myself so that I am somehow this whole experience. I am not just the observer looking at you and listening.

There is something I call the melancholy of human experience and I think you can only start getting to it when you get older.

We are the only species that I know of on this planet that knows we are going to die. Other animals have consciousness or maybe even self-consciousness but they don’t have the concept of death. They may have instinct for terror or for when they are being attacked—you know, fight or flight, but nobody knows that we are actually going to die. Years ago, when I was first invited to give lectures, I went up to Boston and I said to the group that everything we do is a distraction, and what we are distracting ourselves from is our own mortality. Remember how I mentioned earlier that the bill always comes due?

When I was younger, I believed every lie that the Catholic Church ever told. I remember my mother said to my brother and me once, Once you people get educated the first thing that happens is you forget about God. I wanted to say, Well, just think about it! People get educated and they forget about God—isn’t there a message there? I am now a raging atheist.

SM In the interview with Seidner, there is a whole segment where you firmly describe how you don’t believe that there is a man in the sky, but something more abstract. It sounds if we were going to throw a label on it that you were identifying more as being agnostic?

DM Right, but now I don’t believe even in that. I am an empiricist. I believe that only direct experiences create true knowledge. It’s like the difference between reading a hundred love stories and then actually falling in love. There is a type of picture I call stand and stare perfected by Rineke Dijkstra where the subjects just stand and stare at the photographer. For me that is the bottom of the barrel of photography. Her practice is the continuation of the idea—

SM That a true self can appear in front of the camera?

DM Never! It’s bullshit. I knew my mother and father my entire life and not once did they ever reveal themselves to me. The thought that people in the most artificial situations like in Dijkstra’s photographs show the photographer who they truly are is the biggest load of nonsense. People put on their photographic face, they are not what they appear to be. In fairness, photography deals exquisitely with appearances, and description. Cameras describe very well. But until the photographer annotates what he is photographing then it is mere description. It’s one thing for me to take a picture of my mother and my father and my brother, and it is quite another thing for me to then write about what you do not see in the photograph. Photographs fail constantly. I get very annoyed. Diane Arbus used to spend two or three days photographing somebody—that’s so ridiculous!

SM Over the years you have stated that you expect less from photography than from any other art form—so why did you pursue it? Do you still feel that same way today about it?

DM When I started photography, I had the same definition that other people had at that time, which was—well, I did stand and stare pictures. You travel and photograph people and your eye feasts on the visual treasures of the world. Most people get off by doing only that, which is perfectly fine for them. But I was lucky enough to evolve beyond that and demand more. I demanded more from the medium than the medium was offering. So I began doing sequences. I was always interested in metaphysical issues to begin with, so rather than photographing a corpse or a cemetery or people weeping in black dresses, I photographed the spirit leaving the body because I wanted to know what happens when you die. Here’s what it is—it’s this great energy. The Chinese call it the Qi, Henri Bergson calls it the vital element, the Japanese call it the Ki, and I call it animating energy. This is the great energy.

SM Wouldn’t you say that isn’t atheism, then?

DM I hate organized religions. All organized religions are essentially political institutions whose only purpose is to perpetuate themselves. The Catholic Church has always been a political institution. They all are. I hate all that. I’m already it. There are only two things that are important to me that came out of The Bible—The Kingdom of God is within you, which means we are already the energy, there is no other energy, there is only one energy and we are that energy. The other thing is, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It frees yourself of dogma. All churches are fascistic institutions. They have a dogma, they have a leader who runs the show and you cannot deviate. It’s like my mother, who had a bad marriage—she should have gotten a divorce even before they got married. You know why they never got divorced? Because they were Catholic. God would have been very annoyed if my mother had been happy. Why is it that God’s only happy when other people are unhappy?

Fred often says to me, “You’re so intolerant of organized religions, you should respect that those are some peoples’ beliefs”, and I say “Why should I respect stupidity?” If you said to me two and two equals five and that that is what some people believe and therefore you should respect it, I would tell you that two and two does not equal five and therefore I don’t see why I should respect that because it isn’t the truth.

SM What’s the difference between the animating energy you mentioned and the personal Godyou used to believe in? You said in the ’80s that you needed the idea of a personal God or father figure to watch over us because otherwise you’re alone in the universe. What have you replaced it with?

DM I don’t believe in a personal God now. I think it’s a crutch. I’ve gotten used to the loneliness of the universe. I’m delighted you’ve brought up these earlier interviews—it’s fascinating for me. I shouldn’t feel the same way as I did then. Also what is appropriate at 40 might not be appropriate at 80.

SM You once said that if photography is a viable living art form then it has to change. Do you think it’s changed in the last several decades?

DM No, not that much. What would those changes be? Large photographs? If you look at photography today, photographs have simply become large. This is the age of museum photographs. I wrote 32 aphorisms in my book and one of them is that I’d never trust any photograph that is so large it could only fit in a museum. Those photographs are only designed for museums or homes. They aren’t photographs anymore. If you took an Andreas Gursky picture in a hotel lobby and made it into an 8×10—it’s an annual report photograph. It only has any power because of the size. That’s why people like Wolfgang Tillmans will photograph their breakfast with a little camera and then make it into a 10-foot photograph. Who gives a fuck about what he had for breakfast? These are stylistic ticks. The digital has changed the paradigms of photography. I had an opening in Boston and this woman had a little camera with her and kept exclaiming, Everything is a photograph! That’s the problem. The bar has been lowered so much in photography now. . .

SM Has the bar been lowered even more since the ’80s?

DM Oh yes. Photography is so democratic because it is so accessible. But that doesn’t mean that anyone can produce in all this democracy anything of value. You have to bring insight. And the only thing most photographers do is description. They’re still doing the Diane Arbus.

SM Can you name a contemporary photographer who does more than description in your opinion?

DM Yes. There is a wonderful Spanish photographer named Chema Madoz. He is very witty. When you look at a photograph you must ask yourself, Have I seen this before? Ninety-nine percent of the time you have seen it before. Diane Arbus to Rineke Dijkstra and back to Nadar—those are all the same photographs over and over again. Dijkstra hasn’t brought anything new to the table. It’s the same rules description as truth but it’s not true!

SM Did you go see her retrospective show at the Guggenheim?

DM No.

SM The videos, at least for me, were infinitely more interesting than the photographs. But, speaking of videos and film. . . how did the recent documentary about you called The Man Who Invented Himself come about?

DM I gave a talk in Arles at the photography festival a couple of years ago and a French production company asked me if I wanted to do a movie, and I said yes.

SM What was it like making the film?

DM Well, I learned a big lesson I mean, these people are very nice and everything but it’s not my film. It’s their film. I was an actor in their film. They edited the film in a way I would not have. I hate to sound like I’m criticizing them, but I think it was a big lesson to learn. They chopped and diced it up.

SM So you weren’t pleased with the end result?

DM All I’ll say is that it should be re-edited in a different way. I’m a narrative person. They chopped and diced. There is no chronology. It jumps around and back and forth. The title came from a poem I wrote, and that is very interesting to me. I write a lot. Not because I think I’m a writer but because I think that if you have any talent at all you should exercise it and investigate it. . .

Everything that he experienced in his lifetime or his inventions/he invented the moon and the stars and all things visible and invisible and at this moment he is inventing me writing this and yes, you reading it, yes you too are his invention, but if you hold him this he would not understand it and he would deny it even though all things he thought possible became possible and all things he thought impossible were impossible and in the end he would even invent his own death and he would never know that he had invented it all.

Still, the movie is a good movie because I’m interesting.

SM . . . and modest!

DM No, I’m not modest.

SM So tell me a little bit about the work you’ve been making involving painting on photographs. You’re about to have a new exhibition open. . .

DM When I was in Pittsburgh, I used to go to drawing classes at the museum. I have a small collection of drawings and paintings that I’ll be leaving to the museum actually. I’m very loyal . . . I don’t know why. I’ve got many idiosyncrasies and one of them is my passion for Pittsburgh. Really, it’s bizarre. So I always painted even though I had never planned to be a painter. I’ve taken more from painters than I have from photographers, writers too. But in the ’80s, I thought there was this space—and I still do—between photography and painting that nobody has investigated. When I made an initial body of paintings, it didn’t go well. I was floundering. After I had made my initial discovery, I was sort of paddling upstream without a paddle, so I said to myself, Well one day when I’m older I’ll get back to it. I wanted to make that happen somehow. So I began to work with found objects—I didn’t know what I was doing. You see, if you know what you’re doing then it’s not original. You always have to notknow what you’re doing. Paul Eduard said for something to be really new there can be no model for it.

SM Like if you know the conclusion, why start?

DM Exactly. It’s the same way I felt when I started doing sequences all those years ago out of left field, and when I began to write on photographs out of the need and frustration I had with the limitations of still photography. I began to write on them because they were silent pictures. If I wanted to talk about my mother, father, and brother, you would never understand by looking, so I had to write about it. I was always quite willing to let go of any definition. You’re either defined by the medium or you redefine it. In my case, I redefined the medium in terms of my needs and I’m doing the same thing now with photography and painting. Talk about being immodest—of all the contemporary photographers, there are those who make great portraits, there are great reportage photographers, but nobody in photography has made as many innovations as I have. In terms of sequences, the only person before me was Eadweard Muybreadge, and he was really studying motion.

SM Since you are talking about all of these innovations and successes, what has been a major failing on your part looking back?

DM Any failing that I’ve had has been a failing of my imagination and my own limitations, not the failing of the concept. Like when I first started to paint I was running on empty and just stopped. And now I’m back—I’m back, baby!

SM Do you take criticism well?

DM I don’t take criticism. I give criticism. I don’t need criticism. I know what I’m doing.

SM Have you ever thought about what you might have pursued if you couldn’t have been an artist?

DM That’s like asking if I had great legs would I have been Betty Grable.


In addition to the documentary The Man Who Invented Himself made by Terra Luna Films about Michals last year, and his latest brand new body of work on exhibition at DC Moore Gallery, Steidl publishers will be releasing a new book of Michals’ work this summer entitledPhotographs from the Floating World.