Duane Michals is an American photographer, whose work makes innovative use of photo-sequences, often incorporating text to examine emotion and philosophy.
Michals first made significant, creative strides in the field of photography during the 1960s. In an era heavily influenced by photojournalism, Michals manipulated the medium to communicate narratives. The sequences, for which he is widely known, appropriate cinema’s frame-by-frame format. Michals has also incorporated text as a key component in his works. Rather than serving a didactic or explanatory function, his handwritten text adds another dimension to the images’ meaning and gives voice to Michals’s singular musings, which are poetic, tragic, and humorous, often all at once.
Over the past five decades, Michals’s work has been exhibited in the United States and abroad. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, hosted Michals’s first solo exhibition (1970). More recently, he has had one-person shows at the Odakyu Museum, Tokyo (1999), and at the International Center of Photography, New York (2005). In 2008, Michals celebrated his 50th anniversary as a photographer with a retrospective exhibition at the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, Greece and the Scavi Scaligeri in Verona, Italy.
Several of our previous interview subjects had suggested we speak with Duane Michals, a mercurial presence in photography's lineage of the past fifty years. We spoke with him last summer as he found himself moving easily into film, dealing with the loss of his longtime partner, and staring (without fear) at the autumn of his career.
Duane was funny, amazingly open about his process and life, and offered no shortage of opinions on the current state of the photography world, politics and anything else that tickled his fancy. Interviewing him was an utter delight.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Movies. We’ve been making movies, well, back up a little bit, I was involved with my friend Fred for 57 years, and he just died a year ago actually of Alzheimer’s.
And this is Freddy in our garden in the country, and let’s see…anyway. So while he was sick with Alzheimer’s…Seven years. He also had Parkinson’s, so I kept him home, around the clock care. So my great attention was taking care of him.
But luckily, I started making movies and that gave me some place to get out of the house, rather than worrying, did he shit today, did he take his medications, did he fall down.
So then, I was very lucky because I always did everything by myself. I never wanted to be Avedon, I didn’t want to be Penn, I didn’t want a studio, I didn’t want 3,000 employees.
Never, because I was the cottage industry, I liked small scale, I do small scale photographs, I love to use the Toulouse Lautrec, Mickey Rooney, I love small people. If somebody gave me $20 million and said make a movie I would do it, but I have no pretensions to Hollywood movies, I like little movies, And it all happened when I got an assistant named Josiah Cuneo, and one day he told me that you could make movies with a little camera now, I couldn’t believe it! And so, movies are the logical conclusion to what I’ve always done.
I’ve always told stories. And it’s all about language and ideas rather than something, some description.
Most photographs are about description of something, a face, and I always felt that, it’s one thing to describe what somebody looks like, and it’s another thing to bring insight, what you know about. So we start making, and they’re only four minutes to five minutes, and it’s amazing what you can pack into four or five minutes. If you go see a movie, if you cut out the guy driving down the road in the car, gets to the house and you see him walking up to the house, he buzzes, somebody comes to the door, he has a conversation with a woman; I go right to the conversation, I cut out all the bullshit.
And we’ve done 22 of them and they’re wonderful, I really love them.
I still get jobs which I love doing, I’m not a photo snob, I always love doing jobs and I never expected my private world to support me, I never wanted it to support me, so that’s where students make a big mistake. They graduate from school, they want to be Cindy Sherman, and it’s not going to happen. And I said, the purpose of doing my private work is to express myself. The purpose of doing jobs is to support my self-expression, and the kids that come out thinking they are going to have big careers in photography are nuts. That’s too much responsibility/pressure on your private work to produce. I remember once when I was starting out, I was working, and a young girl comes up and says what are you doing, and I said yeah, and she was like what are you doing here, and I said “making a living,” and she said to me, “oh, I would never sell out.” And I wanted to say honey, you have nothing to sell.
That’s a problem. We make the movies just for the pleasure of making them, I don’t make them…
Yeah, just like with all good work, it’s the pleasure of doing the work…it’s just the sheer pleasure of doing the work. We’re working on another production, we’re in pre-production as we say, and it’s going to be a mystery based on Agatha Christie. It’s about a bunch of magicians who are having a cocktail party and they’re all nutty, and it’s called Abra Cadaver (chuckles) one by one, they get bumped off.
Yeah! And then there are none, so that’s the idea so that’s going to be a lot of fun. I think I haven’t spent more than, maybe only in a couple, but $5,000-6,000 to make a movie.
Yeah. Anyway, they’re all about something.
There are different themes, all kinds of themes. One is called Book Crook where I go to a book store and steal books, and then I come in front of the book store and sell the books I just stole.
And the owner catches me, things like that. The recent ones are very, more abstract, and in amazing color. Those are really interesting, they’re all interesting.
Not much, and I love digital cameras. I say fuck film.
The new (digital) cameras are so wonderful to work with, so much easier, I cannot tell you. I worked for 60 years and I always made my living in jobs.
I was never nuts about process. I mean, you had to learn the minimum, but I always felt the camera should never be something between me and what I’m doing. I knew my camera so well that I could close my eyes and I would calculate everything very quickly. I don’t know how to use the digital properly yet. Friends/assistants helps me to put it together.
You see the picture, you correct the picture, and you put the thing in the computer, amazing. If I think of something on Monday, I’ll have it done by Friday. And I also tell students that you have to care enough, if you need someone to give you an assignment, go sell shoes.
No, when you get out of the school, no one gives a fuck about you, and if you don’t even care enough. So really, I have a lot of energy, and I’m trim, and it’s, I’m very self motivated.
Oh I get very, I tell you what I’m angry about, that new category called, “artists who use film.”
First of all, it’s an artificial category. There was a piece in the Times recently, a gallery had announced they were reconfiguring William Eggleston, he’s not a photographer anymore, he is now an artist who uses camera…hello? Don’t piss on my foot and tell me it’s rain.
So Cindy Sherman went to photo school, only showed in photo galleries, and she’s always showed photographs. And now with the flick of a switch, the art world has invented a new category, because if Eggleston is worth $3,500 as a photographer for print, he’s now worth $35,000, $350,000 for a fucking photo, please. So it’s a ploy.
It’s art world…so immediately, Robert Frank goes to the end of the line, photographers are pushed back yet again because they wiggled a new category…photographers are not artists, only reconfigured photographers use cameras, say what, and nobody in the fucking photo-world says anything about it. And they’re getting shit on. But I’m very opinionated, I could do 10 minutes on anything.
Well you know, yeah, well have them come and talk to me. After 60 years of film.
Oh I don’t, I don’t at all, because I, god broke my ass with film, you try taking photos of children with film and a job, it will kill you. With digital, it’s so much easier, so much more control, you can actually see a photograph and make corrections on the spot. Oh please, don’t even go there, I think it’s mostly for people who, I don’t want to say, I was going to say…not dilettantes, but people who have had no real history. If you work 60 years, under all kinds of circumstances, and as I said, I’m not a photo snob I love my jobs I’m amazed I can even do them. A total amateur, I knew nothing.
I had one friend who helped me in the darkroom to show me stuff, great guy named Damien who’s now deceased, and I learned everything on the job. I don’t think I could have survived nowadays, because the photo world is so different, in my day you could actually meet an art director and share your portfolio, but now, there’s no personal contact. And these iPhones, they’re amazing, these little cameras!
I can’t believe the quality of the work. So I’m not a photo snob at all about anything. To me, it’s always about the idea.
Oh no, that’s the worst thing to happen.
No really! I don’t know, I’ve given the graduation talks at a couple schools, and I ask the students, well what did it cost you to go here, and $200,000 for WHAT? Are you out of your mind? Pick up the fucking camera, take pictures. And now they want to go to grad school. I don’t get it. It’s like they’re putting off actually having to take pictures by, and what do they, you have to learn, as I matured, I learned things.
I had to learn I wasn’t Catholic, I had to learn I was an atheist, I had to learn I wasn’t straight. And these are things you assume, and unlearning is much harder. Do you know how many people come by with photographs they’ve taken of the Robert Frank trip across country? Same old thing. And you know, it’s okay if you want to do it, but I’m just saying, nobody will ever do it better than Robert Frank. To me, Robert Frank is the authentic, he and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the authentic photo artist.
A purity and a complete vision. Did you ever see contact sheets from The Americans?
You should, there used to be a magazine called American Photo or something.
I don’t remember, but they had a page called The Contact Sheet, and they would run contact sheets of famous photographers, and Robert Frank’s, boom, click perfect, boom boom, perfect, boom boom boom, another picture. Robert Frank, he used to do an ad campaign for The New York Times, and when he wasn’t available, I did them. And I killed myself. Total suicide to get that off-the-cuff elegance, elegant and purity. And there were no galleries in those days, he was just doing the work.
And now everybody wants the rewards, it’s tough. It’s too easy to say the photographer world has been corrupted, but if it has, it’s because of the money. Once you get that $300,000 photograph, you’re never going back.
Oh yeah I loved the work, my definition of success is you find something you love doing, and you get somebody to pay you to do it. I haven’t worked in 60 years. I literally have not worked in 60 years and my idea of work is when you have to go someplace to do something you don’t want to do. That’s work. Most people have to go to a job.
Oh no, I loved doing commercial work, and I was shocked…who says you can’t fool old people, I was shocked to find myself doing big time jobs, campaigns, that I was learning on the job. And I didn’t have an agent until the very very end, and I loved her dearly, but once I got an agent, she fucked everything up.
But you know, I never had any overhead, I usually had one assistant. I’ve done everything from the Paris collections for Vogue and Marie Bella, Life covers, Synchronicity album. I had no idea who they were, the Police. I loved learning everything, especially when I didn’t know what I was doing. But literally learning on the job was the best.
I did a campaign for Massachusetts Mutual, went on for almost 10 years. I did one for all the, AT&T, let’s see who else, I did one for Scientific American, that went on for 5 years, and I would have to go someplace and the guy said, “the idea of the campaign was that if you advertise in American Scientific, you’re not just getting scientists, but really smart people in business who are interested in science.” You get somebody that level, and so we’d go and photograph the president of Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, who happened to be a book collector or something, and then we would have to make on location.
That’s what I’m good at. I can do studio pictures, but I’m best going someplace and having to put a photograph together, it’s always exciting.
Yeah, and the rule was, first I find my light, you know that Hungarian recipe for making chicken goulash?
First you steal the chicken.
So first I find my light, then I steal the chicken.
I just, I’ve been doing less the last couple years, books for a Spanish fashion house. And they produce these very expensive private editions, only 1,000 copies. And mint stuff, so this year I did one called Sirrealist, S-I-R, all surrealist jokes and puns. And then I did, last year I did one about magicians and we rented a theater in Madrid. And did magic acts on stage, so I love doing jobs like that.
Yeah. Any muscle, if you don’t use it, you lose it. But then the movies, like I’ve said, we’ve done 22 of them, and there are no two alike, I never do the same thing twice. I love the challenge of figuring something out, and I hate when a photographer gets a signature style, like stand-ins, everyone does stand-ins here, headshots you know. I dislike people like Rineke Dijkstra, over and over, that’s description. She did a series on Israeli soldiers, but what the fuck do I care what they look like? What I really want to know is what do they think about Palestinians? How many of them are Hassidic?
Yeah, exactly. What are their attitude toward women? So that’s why I began to write with the photographs, because I was so frustrated with the silence of the picture. My classic example is my mother and my father, if I took their picture after 50 years of marriage, I would be…they hadn’t even fucked in 40 years, they didn’t even like each other.
No, it’s a big lie. So all those pictures, lies lies lies.
No, no, get rid of the word “capture.” too. That’s a word I really hate in photography, you don’t capture, I don’t need to capture, this is my Duane suit, this is a 1932 model, they’re recalling this year because of spare parts. You don’t capture it!
Reproduce. No, I don’t have a word. But early on, I began to write with photographs early, right, from the beginning, because I was frustrated…the first one I really wrote was my mother my father and my brother, called Letter From My Father, which was a true story. So it’s one thing to show you their faces, you know, there’s another thing to bring, I’d say when you bring insight into the photography and then you become the artist. Anybody can, I knew you’re from California, what else do I know about you, not too much, so I could take your picture, but I know shit about you. I know nothing about you important. You’re cute, I’ll tell you that.
I’m sure you get that a lot.
I’m not hitting on you and you can’t sue me!
So I was frustrated with what the still photograph did, and it does many things wonderfully, absolutely perfection. But on the other hand, if I see a woman crying, I want to know why she’s crying. Fuck her tears, I want to know what is making, so then I had to start writing…
No no, it doesn’t reveal anything, it just describes. There’s a difference between a description and a revelation.
Ah, that’s good, show and tell! And there’s certain things, like, how do you photograph luck? Don’t show dice. But when I did Chance Meeting, about two guys passing each other, that has so many implications, the idea that two people could, maybe could have connected, but it was too late. We’ve got to stop believing in description as being the thing itself. What’s more important than description is if you could get inside of it, and in every category…now that I’m on the cusp of death; I’m not dying, but…
Yeah, yesterday (chuckles). The difference is intimacy. I can be more intimate with language. And you can write one sentence, I did a picture with a couple sitting on a bed, woman’s behind him, and she’s embracing him like, and I said, “this photograph is my proof there was that afternoon when we were together and she still loved me, look, see for yourself.” So the photograph…in other words, their relationship is over, but they still have…
Yeah, well because that photo was taken at the beginning of the relationship.
This is 20 years later and he said, “when we took this picture we were in love.” And you can see the love in the photograph. But writing the lines, and then I did this little movie, it’s called Interrupt, it’s about two guys who are about to have sex and the guy’s wife walks in. It’s called Interrupt Us, and there are two lines at the end of the film, one said, “he slept with her but dreamt of him,” and that said everything, that was really what it was about. So it’s trying to get inside, I just felt like it would be more intimate with language. And I’m talking to Aperture now about doing a book, just of my writing, no photographs.
I’ve written a couple stories about the gardens. When we lived in the country, we had a huge garden, so we just went there mostly to garden, and that was one of the things Fred and I had in common was that we loved. Although I’m certainly 100% gay, I’m not…I don’t like Mapplethorpe, I’m not of that school of gay-ness.
As a photographer, I’m an anomaly, I’m not an ordinary photographer. If you talk about American photographers, you’re not going to think of me. You’re going to think of Winogrand, you’re going to think of Frank and Arbus. I’m much more European in my instincts, I use a lot of language and I have a lot of references to myths and things like that.
Oh entirely different way, oh absolutely. And HBO did a documentary on Mapplethorpe, and they interviewed me, but they never used my segment because I’m the anti-Mapplethorpe. I get very angry, he did a self-portrait with a whip up his ass.
Black guys with big dicks, there’s a cliché! Let’s see, all those things are, I said that Reverend Falwell could not have described homosexuality any better, but I’m much less subversive, because for me, homosexuality is about the legitimacy of affection between people of the same gender, and if it expresses itself physically that’s terrific. But it’s not about being professionally gay, and just spend your whole life sitting in bars getting fucked. …Not an altogether bad idea…
Ha! Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater! When I say different strokes for different folks, I mean it! (chuckles)
Oh not animosity, disrespect.
No, it came from, see, I love photography, and there are a lot of things which I felt, in photography, were being abused. No one ever questioned a lot of stuff that was going on.
Yeah. If you ask Truman Capote what he thought, the famous quote, Johnny Carson asked Truman Capote, he said, “Truman, what do you think of Jack Kerouac’s writing?” And Truman said, “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” Haha!
So if you ask Gore Vidal what he thought of Buckley, (don’t even know how to describe this sound effect, maybe something like a cow pooping?)
So I have a lot of opinions about photography, I love photography! And (John) Szarkowski ran a tight little ship forever, he was Mr. Photography, but I have no power, I’m not a critic, I’m not a writer for magazines, I’m not a museum director, I’m not a dealer. There’s a lot of things that I have, just one man’s opinion, who gives a fuck what I think? I don’t even give a fuck what I think, but I think it’s important to have ideas.
A problem with photography is you get instant results so quickly that you could reproduce, you get quite satisfied with just taking a picture of your face. Which brings, which is totally lacking because it doesn’t bring any of the depth, those pictures are not even, are maybe just two dimensional. But in a portrait you have to go someplace, you have to get deeper. You have to go someplace with it, and it’s, the face is the point of departure. And everybody settles for that, but they don’t bring any other insight into the face or anything, what description what feeling you might have. I find that people I care for, I’m terrible because I have an emotional content in the photograph. I’m bedded with strangers because I have no emotional contact, but it makes it more difficult so I work harder.
So I just really have something happen, and you can’t do that. You just have to let it go with the flow.
Yeah, oh my mother was very vain, and in my portrait book, I think it’s one of the best portraits of her I’ve done, it’s a picture of my mother looking out of a window, and the window, there’s moisture in the window, and in the sunlight you can see her reflection in the, the portrait is really her reflection, and it’s called Portrait of Mother After Father Died, so it was very specific, she looked very alone, she looked almost lost and sad, this suggested where she was at the moment, in the loss in her grief.
So that’s what I think portraits should be about. I once wrote years ago that how the lines, the geography of my face was changing on all those lines that had once been streams are now becoming rivers. (chuckles) And how the face, like a glacier, is very slowly moving down.
Yeah, yeah, literally, I’m being pulled back down to the earth, our home where we eventually go. It was very interesting.
No, not at all. As a matter of fact, when he was sick, people would say to me, “oh did you photograph him? No no no, and I said, “I still have in my memory when I saw him dead, for the first time.” Avedon photographed his father dying, please, it’s time to put the camera down, and you don’t publish it a month later. It would have been a violation of our relationship. And also I have that image in my head now, I can look at it for the rest of my life.
I just think that’s much too private, and self-serving, ultimately.
Yeah, exactly. And then to publish the pictures, a violation of our intimacy. Like, not a nickel, contributing to myself on him, please.
During life? Not that much. I would say it was like being a famous chef who comes home, you know, and cooks dinner, no no. He was an architect, and I didn’t want my career to intrude in his life, or vice versa. So he had his own territory and I had my territory, but I just think that sometimes, you put the camera down. The feelings are more important than a photo, just go with the feeling. But when the feelings, in the middle of discovering seeing Fred dead, the last thing I was going to do was pick up a camera and start taking pictures, please.
Toward the end, I would sit on the bed next to him, his bed was right here, and I would hold his face and I’d be this close, and I’d say, “Fred,” we used to have a dog, and I said, “her name was Babe, we got her as a puppy with the name, so I said, do you remember when Babe used to get in the tomatoes and eat all the tomatoes and she’d have tomatoes all over her mouth?” Or I’d say, “do you remember when we bought our house in the country?” We had an apple orchard, and I used to make, I love apple pie, I used to make 6 apple pies in a clip, and I said, “do you remember my apple pie? And then there would be a moment of recognition. There would be a moment when his eyes would light up…and he knew who I was. So that’s why I don’t take pictures.