It’s sunny day of March in New York and I am roaming the district of Gramercy Park, making time before my meeting with the photographer Duane Michals. I move through small streets where quaint 19th century houses in various European styles sit quietly next to each other, silently containing the lives and domestic spaces of hundreds of people I will never know, with exception of a very particular one. I buzz the front door of Michals’ house and I offer my hand to the legendary artist, washed with the sudden shyness that comes from admiration. A smiling Michals reaches the bottom of the stairs and, playfully ignoring my hand, gives me a disarming hug and shows me to his studio. He has just turned 80, but his voice and demeanour are astonishingly youthful, even if his discourse is often punctuated by mentions to old age and death, which he lets out with sincere humour.
The oeuvre of Duane Michals (Pennsylvania, 1932) is peerless. He doesn’t represent American photography in the way that his acclaimed contemporaries Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander or Diane Arbus do. His photographs –visual, and often also textual, poems of metaphysical dimensions– never documented and portrayed America, its vast landscapes and people, its petrol stations and underdogs. Michael’s influences always had a rather European feel, full of literary references and Surrealist puns, which made him a unique artist within his generation as well as an enduring influence for younger artists, from Francesca Woodman to Latoya Ruby Frazier.
Why did you pick up a camera for the first time?
Totally by accident. I didn’t become a photographer officially until I was 28. I moved to New York when I was 26 because I loved books and magazines and after doing some freelance work, I managed to get job at Time Inc, designing promotional material for various magazines. While working there I was offered the chance to travel to Russia. It was at the height of the Cold War and an incredible chance, so I borrowed some money and went there. I took a friend’s camera with me because I thought one should take pictures in a unique situation like that, just like souvenirs. Funnily enough, my friend also wanted to lend me a light meter, but I refused because that meant I would be expected to take nice, serious pictures! So he explained a basic method of getting the exposures right in basic conditions of sunny, cloudy and indoors light. I used those tricks, and all my exposures were perfect (laughs). The resulting images were a nice collection that propelled me into declaring myself a photographer although I didn’t know a thing about it.
So you developed those pictures and had some sort of “revelation”?
Well, the pictures turned out to be good. There was a very famous art director, a sort of graphic guru called Henry Wolf, who had gone from Esquire to Harper’s Bazaar and somebody told me he needed an assistant. So I made a dummy of a magazine using my own photos from Russia and when I showed it to him he said “Who took this pictures?” and I said I did, and he said that I should be a photographer instead of a graphic designer. The same thing happened with the art director of the New York Times, and then those people remembered me and started giving me assignments, and that was it. I learned almost everything as I went along.
You have photographed a lot of celebrities –including Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Pier Paolo Pasolini, René Magritte, Richard Gere or Joe d’Alessandro. Were they commissions or self-initiated projects?
Most of them were assignments for Vogue, Mirabella and Mademoiselle, because I didn’t have personal access to all those famous people. I have always loved doing portraits, which I started doing in Russia. I think portraits lie, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting. I think it’s important to know how to make a portrait of someone that doesn’t tell you what they look like, but what they are about. For example, when I photographed Magritte, which was wonderful, I took that picture of him by the easel and made a double exposure, so it looked like one of his paintings.
You have some things in common with Warhol. You were born in the same town, you both moved to NY and started in the publishing world and then switched to art… Were you actually friends with him?
Andy and I were both born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. He was four years older than me and very successful as an illustrator. I knew of him, but we didn’t know each other properly until I took his portrait. He was very eccentric and very anxious for fame, so in a way he got everything he wanted. But I was never in his camp, although I am gay too. I am not a typical gay person anymore than I am not a typical photographer. I was never interested in promiscuity, or dressing up like a woman or hanging out in bars.
There are three main realms to your practice: the gallery show, the book and the magazine. In which one are you most comfortable?
I love doing commercial work, I always said yes. But I never had a studio, I was never a “business”. I once went to photograph the head of IBM with this art director and I came by just myself carrying my little bag with a tripod, with some film I had just bought in a shop. And this art director then wrote an article saying he was actually embarrassed that I showed up looking so unprofessional. But this is the way I still operate.
But you have never been a person too worried about technical matters, have you?
No, not at all. I always work with assistants that have more photo equipment than I do. Photography has changed so much since I came on the scene but I still use film and I only have two cameras, two 35mm Canons. That’s still the way I work and I use available light 90% of the time. But I still managed to do major commercial jobs, the Paris collections, covers for Life magazine… I am not a photo snob. When I look at an advertisement I know how hard is to do that… In a way I am the complete photographer, because I have also done major museum shows, I have published thirty-five books…
Books are in fact an essential part of your body of work. Tell me about your last one, ‘The Lieutenant Who Loved His Platoon’, which describes coming to terms with your sexuality while being in the army during the Korea War. Was it a traumatic experience?
Oh yes, but not being gay. Being in the army was traumatic! The army was the worst time of my life. Whatever problems I have to face now, I always tell myself that at least I am not in the army. The army is the most fascistic regime of insane people telling you what to do. When I think of people like George Bush pushing a country to war, without having been in combat himself I find it disgusting. Soldiers that go to several missions, one after the other, they will never get over it. But I had two bodies of correspondence, one with my college girlfriend, Helen McDonals, and the other with my gay guru, Dick McFadden. They both saved all my letters and some 40 years later they thought I might be interested in reading them, so I did. That time of my life came back to me so vividly that I started working on the book almost immediately.
Writing is also a key part of your practice, and one of the most distinct traits of your work is that you write on the margins of your photographs. How did that come about?
When I started doing that I got lots of criticism. I once ran into a teacher of the School of Visual Arts and he asked me, very alarmed: “What it this thing of writing in photographs?!”. The idea has always been that an image is worth a thousand words, and to have to write something to support or explain an image could only mean that the image had failed. So this teacher was really worried because his students were asking what this could imply. But photographs fail all the time and all I did when I started writing in my pictures was to respond to the limitations of the medium. I don’t write captions. Captions tell you what you are looking at, but my texts tell you what you can’t see. I’ve always thought that photographs don’t tell you enough. They describe very well. But when I write, I am pointing at things that can’t be seen. All this came from the frustration I felt about the silence of the still image.
What interest me of your work, apart from the beauty of the images, is its subjects. You talk about fundamental issues, like life and death, desire or representation, but never in a pretentious, intellectualised way. Your style is very metaphysical but very accessible at the same time.
Well, I was very lucky and never went to photography school so I never actually learned the photography rules. My taste and interests remained intact through my own learning process. I wasn’t into the style of my contemporaries, like Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander, as much as I liked them. I wanted to talk about life after death, of what happens when you die, so I started taking pictures that conveyed spirits leaving their bodies, because that is what I think that happens. I had to invent a way of expressing that idea. So once I had freed myself of the tyranny of walking around the streets looking for a subject, the possibilities were enormous. I could then pay attention to my imagination. Most artists or writers conjure up a world, they don’t discover a world, they create one, and that was my model.
You didn’t go to photography school, which made you invent a new set of rules. What do you think of the total professionalization of art and art education taking place currently?
You can’t teach anybody to be an artist, the only thing they can teach you in art school are some rules to go by, which is horrible. I always say to my students “don’t try to be an artist, try to find that something inside you that needs to be expressed, then, maybe, you can be an artist”. But all the young people seem to be worrying about is how to become famous, which comes from a culture that tells all the children that they are special, that they deserve to be famous, rich and beautiful. The fundamental question is obviously not how to become famous, but how to be in awe of life. And they never teach amazement in art schools.
What about the art scene? What changes can you identify since you first started?
Well, photography right now has been completely devalued. Some people, usually those with small digital cameras and phones, say that everything is a photograph, but I do not agree. Not everything is a photograph, or an interesting one, for that matter. And I don’t trust any photograph that is so large that it can only fit in a museum wall either. When we started there were not “museum photographs”. There were no rewards, no galleries specialized in the medium. MoMA showed some photography in a little room every once in a while and that was it. I never thought that photography could be as corrupt as the painting world, because the money wasn’t there. So if you were someone big in those days, like Robert Frank or Cartier-Bresson, you were a big fish in a small pond. We did photography out of a passion, but now the money is here as well. Once it becomes a commodity it becomes something else, it trivializes the whole thing.
During your long life, who have been your most enduring cultural beacons?
My favourite writer is Borges, who is eternally amazing. I love painters like Giorgio De Chiricho, René Magritte or Balthus. I listen to classical music only and I am huge fan of films like ‘A Room with A View’, ‘L’Atalante’ or ‘Zero de Conduite’ by Jean Vigo or ‘Repulsion’ by Roman Polanski.
Life and death have always been very important subjects in your work. What stance do you have towards them, now that you have turned 80?
At 80 I am busier than ever. I am now starting to paint on pictures, which is very exciting. I am constantly doing new work and I remain curious about so many things, which I believe is what you need to do to live a long life. I really want to know what things feel like, not what they look like. I call myself and expressionist, not a photographer or a writer. I am also an empiricist, so I can only make work about what I have experienced. My gift to you is what I know, what I have learned all in these years.
This interview took place in Duane Michals’ apartment in March 2012, New York City. It was originally published in issue #2 of Buffalo Zine. All images by Duane Michals, except his portrait, which was taken by Anna Bauer. Duane Michals images courtesy of Pace Gallery (NYC) and Fahey/Klein Gallery (LA).