Duane Michals by David Seidner

BOMB 20 Summer 1987
020 Summer 1987

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Michals 01 Body

Duane Michals, Self-Portrait As If I Were Dead, 1970.

Fifty-five years ago, Duane Michals alighted from another planet. He has retained a certain vitality and enthusiasm, an innocence, which gives his work an Alice-in-Wonderland quality, full of marvel at discovering the world around him. The work and the man run against the grain. The prints are small in an age of billboards, the man extremely human in an age of increasing dehumanization. There is no categorization possible, the “intrusion” as he would call it (painting on, writing on, multiple exposure, etc.) and manipulation of the work seems limitless.

“Photographer” is not exactly an apt title for Duane Michals; poet would be better suited.

David Seidner I feel like I know all the answers already.

Duane Michals I’ll lie then.

DS You said in an interview in Le Monde that “Photographers look at things but rarely do they question what they see.” Could you elaborate on that?

DM We’re always projecting on the world our own experience. The only truth we know is what we experience. So, when we see a woman crying, we think, “Ah grief.” But we can’t share her grief. We only know how we felt when someone we loved died, when there was a sense of loss. A photograph of a woman crying tells me nothing about grief. Or a photograph of a woman ecstatic tells me nothing about ecstasy. What is the nature of these emotions? The problem with photography is that it only deals with appearances.

DS So you don’t believe in those appearances as representing reality?

DM No, not at all. Also photographers are very selective in what they choose to see. What they tend to see is what they have been told is okay to see either by the culture or John Szarkowski or by Vogue magazine … these acquired filters.

DS So seeing through to the nature of things is a philosophical issue?

DM Yes and no. More intuitive and emotional. I’m not an intellectual. I haven’t read Kierkegaard. I just try to answer the deeper questions about my own life experience which has marked me. Take for example a picture of my father, mother, and brother. It doesn’t matter to me what my father looked like, but whether or not he loved me. What matters is what or what did not transpire between us, and not that my dad in the picture is 45 years old and is losing his hair. The father/son relationship is one of my most important obsessions, so when I write with this photograph, it’s not to explain to you what you’re looking at, but to express the frustration of the inability of the photograph to tell you. I don’t trust reality. So all of the writing on and painting on the photographs is born out of the frustration to express what you do not see.

DS So your work with sequences for example, stems more from a distrust of reality than being obsessed with the ephemeral and wanting to read between the lines?

DM Well, it all comes together. That’s an ingredient in it too. For example, at a point in my life, I was very interested in and conscious of death, having had a good friend die. I didn’t want to go and photograph a corpse on the street á la Weegee; I’m much more interested in what happens when you die. That I wouldn’t find on the street so I had to find a way of expressing it sequentially. I did The Spirit Leaves the Body because I think you literally walk off. What I tried to photograph was the ephemeral. My idea of reality wasn’t simply the facts of reality.

DS What are the facts?

DM My idea of reality is the interior expression of grief, my anxieties, dreams. We spend a third of our life dreaming but photographers tend not to photograph things we can’t see. Dreams for example. Photographers have a very constipated and narrow vision of what reality is.

DS First of all, you’re dealing with three-dimensional reality in a two-dimensional medium.

DM That alone is a problem. Second of all, you have to organize your mind in such a way as to know how to express this. The nuances, the chance meetings with people, the sexual interests … the decisive moments in everyday life that heighten awareness. How can I express these things? It’s very subtle; more like haiku than hardcore rock music.

Michals 02 Body

From The Nature of Desire by Duane Michals, Twelve Trees Press, 1987.

DS What I got from your work when I first saw it, was the idea of forcing the spectator’s mind to work and reconstruct a story in much the way one does in a good novel. Does that element in your work come from literature or is it intuitive.

DM Intuitive. It’s a very natural part of the structure. I think good work makes demands on the viewer. Photography tells you much too much.

DS So you’re of the school “what is not said is what makes you understand the plot?”

DM That’s a great deal of it. Also, I see myself as a short story writer as opposed to a news reporter. I recently wrote an article about photography and art; the essential point being that photography is an art but by and large as it is practiced by most photographers, will be remembered as a minor art because it lacks the essential ingredient of all major arts which is invention. Photography is essentially an act of recognition by street photographers, not an act of invention. Photographers might respond to an old man’s face, or an Arbus freak, or the way light hits a building—and then they move on. Whereas in all the other art forms, take William Blake, everything that came to that paper never existed before. It’s the idea of alchemy, of making something from nothing. I feel the more a photographer intrudes into the photograph, the more he creates. But people expect less from photography than they do from the other arts. They’re quite happy to simply reproduce someone’s face and they assume that that represents the person and if that person looks attractive, so much the better. It’s the most democratic of all the arts in that anyone can take a photograph or has had their picture taken; so accessible that we don’t demand as much and that’s what makes me angry. Even the pace setters and the professionals in the field, the people who define photography themselves never expect more from the medium than that. Szarkowski, it seems to me, feels that the history of photography has already been defined and it’s simply a matter of refining that definition. Photography is not even a hundred and some years old and it’s already this staid, ossified institution. People are still lighting candles under Stieglitz and under Weston’s green pepper, and rightly so, but let’s get on with it! I’ve seen enough of France at the turn of the century! If photography is a viable living art form, it has to change. It should not be threatened by a handful of non-conformists. The real danger to the medium is the photographer still photographing parking lots in California and being heralded a genius.

DS You have said that you felt you were now between two ages and obsessed by the idea that desire can fade. Do you mean desire or lust?

DM Both, it’s complicated. Lust changes. Desire changes. The greatest of all desires being the desire to “be.” Sexual eroticism is at the service of that essentially because once one loses lust, one can live without sex, but once one loses the desire to live, to be, it’s over. Life is constantly expressing itself against all odds. Things grow through cracks. But eventually that instinct to survive goes when people get quite old, when they’ve done the business of their lives and all their compatriots, peers, and friends have died. Everything changes, especially lust. What I found very attractive when I was younger, I no longer find that interesting. Where once I was dazzled by the big bang theory of sex, I now pay much more attention so that I can enjoy the pleasure of something as subtle as the texture of skin. It’s a kind of wisdom that comes with age. One slows everything down and no longer misses the things one missed in the haste, the impatience of youth. One begins to realize that everything is so fleeting and transient that when there is a good relationship, or a good dinner or conversation, it becomes that much more important. Desire fades but the attention to detail becomes much more intense.

DS The focus changes but not necessarily the subject.

DM The focus changes constantly. And the more it changes and the older I get, the less sure I am about everything and the less I seem to know. I seem to ask more and more questions. I’m completely bewildered. That also is a kind of wisdom, allowing oneself to unlearn. My work is about the absurdity of this condition.

DS Of the human condition or the condition of contemporary society?

DM Contemporary society is only the human condition in drag.

DS Do you believe in God?

DM Well, first of all, I hate the word “God” like I hate the word “art.” “God” is a useless word, it has no value, no currency, it’s meaningless. Which god? I don’t believe in the personal God. I don’t believe there is a very old man who looks like us and is the boss of the universe. He’s very vindictive. For instance the notion that AIDS is a punishment from God against homosexuals is beyond belief. By the same token, God must hate women because he gives them breast cancer, and blacks because of sickle cell anemia. But unfortunately, even though I don’t believe he exists, I need the idea of a personal God, of a sort of father figure watching over us. Otherwise, we’re quite lonely in the universe. We then become the alpha and the omega of the event. I believe in the Eastern idea that God is pure energy. When I discovered Buddhism, I was appalled, as an ex-Catholic, that the Buddhists didn’t believe in a personal god. I needed that. But I think we are the expression of the cosmic energy. I think it’s consciousness evolving back from pure matter to pure consciousness. It’s the Chinese box and there is no end to it.

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Duane Michals, Hildegarde Knef, 1974.

DS Are you afraid of death?

DM I’m afraid of death on the animal level. Most people are afraid of the pain of death. I read an interesting quote from Milan Kundera and he said what frightens people about death is not so much that they will not have a future anymore but that they have lost their past. I think that’s wonderful because we are our histories. No matter how horrible being is, not being is more frightening. I’m afraid, with all the attendant human things; I don’t want to have cancer. I don’t want to live in unendurable pain for a long time. But I’m intrigued by the question of death. Your birthday and your deathday are your two greatest events. Did I tell you what I want on my tombstone? “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here.” And then my name and the dates. I’m fascinated by the transience of death, the act, the change of consciousness. I dealt with death a long time before I got around to sexual issues. I did a book called The Journey of the Spirit After Death in 1970. Loosely based on my idea of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I did Death Comes to a LadyThe Spirit Leaves the BodyMan in the Room, which is about a man who sees this person sitting in the room and is shocked to see him because he’d been to this man’s funeral. And then it turns out in fact, that he’s the one who is dead. The key line is, “Death is nothing that I thought it would be.” I’m hypnotized by the notion of death.

DS Do you think, since the advent of Hiroshima, that it is difficult not to be cynical about the notion of immortality?

DM I think the issue has always been there. Hiroshima’s just made it more gruesome and accessible. It’s made all of us walk a thinner line than we’ve ever walked before.

DS I’m talking about the notion of immortality in the arts.

DM First of all, I’m not concerned with immortality. I’m really not. People very often say, “How do you want to be remembered,” which I think is a very pretentious question. Why should my prints outlive me? I don’t do my work for a kind of immortality, a record. I do it as a way to understand my experience—always for myself. I’m not concerned with my history after I’m dead, not even in the larger sense of “does one continue to exist?” The Hindus have a very interesting notion that our essence is clear, like a mirror. We are constantly reflecting things we experience and we believe the reflections. So right now I believe I’m Duane Michals, but I know this is my Duane Michals suit … We’re not even a deep breath in time. We are made comfortable by our illusions. Everything we think and do is designed to make us feel at ease in a very alien situation. I think that this energy continues, whether it continues as Duane Michals is totally irrelevant. And I’m not interested in my past lives …

DS You’re more interested in effecting change now?

DM Yes, the opportunity of the moment of life.

DS Your work is somewhat politicized. Is it hard for you to come to terms with the fact that you have grand political ideals and that the work is accessible to only a small few through exhibitions and books?

DM I feel the political aspirations are impotent. They can never be seen. If they are, it will only be by a limited audience. If one is to act politically, one simply puts down the camera and goes out and does something. I think of someone like Hartfeld who ridiculed the Nazis. Who very creatively took great stands. He could have been killed at any moment, he was Jewish, and my God what the guy did. It was extraordinary. You don’t see that now. Photographers tend to go out and photograph wars once they’ve begun. Even a genius like Charlie Chaplin doing The Great Dictator, who did reach a mass audience, was completely steamrolled by history. Power is not with the artist. Artists are little pilot fish swimming around a great shark. We have to understand the nature of power. Power is in the hands of big money and oil companies.

DS But even if you can enlighten a handful of people …

DM When I do things, it’s essentially a need to express my anger. I would like very much if Christ Visits New York could be seen in Life magazine. I’m sure I’d get hate mail but one should use one’s anger. Photographers are too polite. They’re always photographing the moonrise or the sunset or their girlfriend’s ass, ad nauseam. I think it’s essential first of all, to identify your anger, to realize your anger is healthy, to try to express it, and to effect change. I did the picture of the priest holding a cross to a man’s head like a gun with the American flag as a blindfold. I would love to do that as a poster. It should be seen in the South where people would really be offended.

DS You stated that the danger to this country is not Communism but the rise of the religious right.

DM The anger’s in other categories too, not just against the religious right. I did a piece called Black is Ugly, not just about prejudice. It goes something like this: “All of his life he believed all the lies white men had told him. He believed that Black was ugly and a punishment from God. He couldn’t guess why he should be punished. He spent his entire life being hungry when white men were being fed and being cold when white men were warm. It seemed to him to be in the natural order of things although he could not guess where the sin was. And then, at last, when I told him that it wasn’t true, he wouldn’t believe me. It was too late.” In this symbiotic relationship of hate, the person who is the victim of the hate, when he believes that he is less than, that his mother is a whore, that he is unnatural, then he is totally victimized. The victim has to recognize the injustice and be angry about it. And if the victim doesn’t do it, it just doesn’t get done. Black people have to get out in the street. Gay people have to vote. They have to take their history in their own hands. These issues make me very angry but I feel, as I said, impotent.

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Duane Michals, Warren Beatty, 1961.

DS In referring to photography you said, “Either one is defined by the medium or one redefines it according to one’s needs. I believe in the spirit more than the eye. It’s all in my head.”

DM That’s true. I feel very strongly that most photographers, in fact most people’s lives are defined by other people. Very few of us really take our lives in our own hands and redefine them. I had to unlearn the first 20 years of my life. In fact, by the time someone’s 20 years old, all they know about life is what they’ve been told about themselves. Then comes the difficult task of eliminating and finding out what is appropriate for them and not their parents. In a similar vein, most photographers are defined by the medium. They take pictures as seen through the eyes of say Robert Frank or Diane Arbus or … but they’ve never really redefined the medium in terms of their own needs. There are many, many truths. Woman’s truth is not man’s truth, black truth is not white truth, gay truth is not straight truth. Not the Pope’s or anyone else’s. But the culture doesn’t define us as people who ask these questions.

DS So you’re not necessarily speaking in terms of your work?

DM I’m speaking of life in general, work being part of the process.

DS Do you ever resent your commissioned work in terms of not being able to devote enough time to your personal work?

DM No, I don’t work that much—maybe two or three days a week. I have no job this week, last week I didn’t do anything, nothing for next week. So I have plenty of time for my own work. I never feel crowded. I like making money, I practiced being poor for a long time, and I don’t like being poor. I don’t want to make a lot of money but I want to make enough to live comfortably. And that’s exactly what I’ve got.

DS Is there anything you would change in your life and career if you could do it over again?

DM I’ve always felt that lurking inside me was an interesting fashion photographer, which I’ve never really dealt with.

DS You’ve done some very beautiful fashion photographs. The picture, of the St. Laurent Russian collection on the display mannequins for Vogue were extraordinary. It’s not too late.

DM I know, but I don’t consider fashion an art. I think art, in my mind, has to do with issues whose raison d’étre is not clothes. I did a series of fashion ads years ago which were sequences, where the woman was wearing the dress. But the photographs were about something else and the dress was an ingredient in the drama.

DS I saw those—Sara Kapp in front of the window with the curtain blowing?

DM Yes. It fell apart because everybody got in the act; the art director came up with ideas and the client wanted to do this and … I stopped doing them. The first few were totally mine, and then little by little …

DS That’s true of every client. Deborah Turbeville once said to me, I’ll never forget, very early in my career. She said, “You’ll just have to expect that. No client is going to be good for more than three seasons.” It’s true, by the third season, they want a little of this and a little of that and give me some of this and some of that and it becomes this big soup.

DM What they say too is, “Well, these are really nice but they’re not really ‘good,’ ‘great,’ Duane Michals.” So I think fashion photos can be gorgeous and extremely satisfying, beautiful, all those things. But to me it has to be about something a little more significant than “this year.” Art deals with truths that are beyond style.

DS So you make a difference between Fine Art and Applied Art.

DM Yes, that’s a good way of saying it. Through fashion photography I don’t learn much about the human condition. What I expect to find in art is a point of discussion. To me it’s what touches me, in a very human way, what makes me want to cry, what explains life to me, what makes me feel.

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Duane Michals, Joseph Cornell, 1972.

DS You have said that in your pictures you only talk about yourself, that you see things in a completely introspective manner. You don’t slip into another person’s skin. You don’t show their fantasies if they are not your own. Do you think your early portraits, say from 20 years ago—Warren Beatty, Joseph Cornell, etc.—are not portraits?

DM Yes, they are portraits, but they’re as told to Duane Michals, as seen through the filter of my vision. Good portraits are always that, the balance between the person being who he is plus the identity of the photographer. But what often happens is that one looks at a portrait and says it’s an Avedon portrait of so-and-so rather than a portrait of someone by Avedon. One must see both personalities. My sequence of Warhol where he covers his eyes and blurs out, Andy being an unknown commodity, is appropriate. The photographs retained his identity. I didn’t pervert the identity, but I balanced it like a teeter-totter with my own way of seeing.

DS You don’t think any sort of truth can come out of the generic white background?

DM I think some can. But I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that people are what they appear to be. You can make a person look like anything you want him to. If he’s crying you can make him look like a dope fiend. If you catch him mid-yawn, I mean, you know. And the persons themselves don’t know who they are. Their only concern is vanity. I’ve always found the bottom line is vanity. It’s how good do I look? I don’t try to make anyone look unattractive, but I don’t try to flatter either. I simply try to deal with what I find. What I hope for is to get the most interesting photograph of that person under the conditions of the moment. But I never would claim that I had any insight into them or that I understood them … how could I? Knowing them for 20 minutes. It’s an artificial relationship. I think maybe Cartier-Bresson’s portraits, where he sneaks up on people have more validity. But I much prefer to take charge of the photograph.

DS Do you think some of the vapidity that comes out of modern studio portraiture has to do with the electronic flash? Before you were forced to sit and stare as a large format camera for maybe 30 seconds to capture the image; was there something more reflective and intense about that?

DM Absolutely. Modern studio or flash portraiture is easier to do because you catch every little wink and blink and stutter. We live in what I call a cartoon culture. Everything comes in a container. Photographers, I think, tend to look at the packaging and never open the package. The same thing applies to people. We somehow assume that the packaging we come in, the wrinkles, the hair, the attractiveness, is what we are. And that’s not at all true.

DS Do you see your work as being philosophical?

DM The most important things of our lives are philosophical. Are unseen, rather. My photographs are about questions. They are not about answers. I think photographs should provoke, should set up the question, the premise, and shouldn’t give the answer. And questions are usually philosophical. I have a “See Dick, See Jane,” brain. Remember, “See Spot run?” I never stopped asking those questions. In the beginning I wondered, and I still do, what happens when you die. I think it’s a very reasonable question. A question people don’t tend to ask because they buy the packaging. Where do I go when I die? Why am I drawn to this person sexually? These are very simple questions and I think my work will probably be around for a long time. (laughter) Although I don’t care about that, simply because these are questions that every generation is going to ask; beyond style, beyond rock stars, beyond everything.

DS You mentioned that you put your own life on stage and that you are the hero of your own story.

DM We’re all the hero of our own story whether we know it or not. Like this is Chapter 55 of the Duane Michals story. (laughter)

David Seidner is a photographer who lives and works in Paris and New York. His work appears regularly in Italian Vogue, Harpers & Queen.

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Weber02 Body
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92 Tuymans 2 Body

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Jeanne Dunning 01

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Originally published in

BOMB 20, Summer 1987

Christopher Durang, Duane Michals by David Seidner, Steve Erickson, and Mona Simpson.

Read the issue
020 Summer 1987