An interview with Duane Michals


On April 11, 2016 & posted in Art, Editor's picks, Exclusive, Interview, Print

© Ryan Yoon, Portrait of Duane Michals, Photographed by Ryan Yoon


– Interview by Ryan Yoon and Mark Carasquillo
Written by Katerina Lagassé 


It is important to contextualize the excerpts of the American photographer, Duane Michals (b. 1932) interview. The extraneous sounds recorded during the interview in Michals’ Gramercy Park studio and central moments that were not captured in a completely audible form established his way of being. One of these moments was the presence of Michals’ longtime partner Fred as he entered the space in a brief exchange about chocolate biscotti. Their short conversation began with the words, “Hello, my darling,” sweetly delivered by Michals. This sparked a reminder that behind every person, there is another ; there are sometimes many.

What is interesting is that we often do remember these intimate relations through a photograph: a medium which Michals’ himself has turned inside out throughout his career, composing images in such a way as to defy its documentary form.

© Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York, “A Letter From My Father”, 1960–75


It is fitting to begin with a passage Michals wrote, and one that he searched for throughout the hour-long interview only to find it at the very end. However, the content of this passage was present throughout, it was behind the entire conversation:

I cannot see that I am vanishing from the strangeness of being into the strangeness of oblivion. I have vanished many times before and with each ‘tick tock’, I vanish more.
Being spent, I am as translucent as my shadow.
Oh, the grandeur and the terror.

My shape floats as if it were a cloud drifting, golden in the dust. My vertebrae crumble under the weight of my ghost. And, in the mirror, I can see through myself.
My shadow has more substance than I do. It is my destiny. My vanity fears the worst. I hear drums and curse my fate. I count my rings like circles in the tree and discover I am ancient. After sharing this, he paused and added,
“Anyways, am I still here, can you see me?”

© Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York, “Empty New York”, c. 1964


These words encompass the philosophic threads and breadth of experiences that are subtly woven throughout Michals’ photographic practice extending over decades. These span from his Catholic upbringing with Czech immigrant parents in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, his service in the United States army in Germany during the Korean War, training as a graphic designer at the Parson School of Design, working in both commercial and fashion photography, watching the process of how ‘the American artist’, Andy Warhol was manufactured, to witnessing and experiencing the effects of both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases on his life partner of over fifty years, Fred.

© Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York, “Death Comes to an Old Lady”, 1969


Michals’ approach to the photograph relays the contextual, conceptual and cognitive relationship between subject, author, and image. His attuness to these relationships has enabled him to embrace and express his curious and reflexive nature through works on death such as Death Comes to the Old Lady (1969), and through satire of the artworld as played out in his book, Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank (2006). Both illustrate that his inquiries about the being are not limited to the spiritual nor the satirical. They rely on his consciousness about the inherent flaws of the static medium—its ability to frame and reproduce semblances of truths. He captures concepts through subtle surreal scenographies and uses sequences and text to instigate the imaginative tangibility of cinematic movement. For Michals’ the cinema is the form that defines the social desires of our time.

Michals’ photographic work can be situated in a long, durational moment where the temporal is fragmented, the past is distant, and the present is concerned with its own historicization. The role of the image and that of the image maker is central to understanding what has and continues to define our reality. From its inception in the 1830s, to speak of the photograph has become synonymous with speaking of traces of time and framing of truths: it is “a way of recording appearances.”1 However, artists challenged this notion by using the medium’s mimetic nature against itself to fabricate frames that are visibly surreal. Michals first approached photography through a tourist gaze with a borrowed Argus camera in 1958, Russia, then known as the USSR, taking attentively composed snapshots of the people and places he encountered (Léningrad, 1968; Minsk, 1968; and Flower peddler, 1968). 2
Michals’ engagement with the medium was never through an academic or professional training. Rather, it was through an intuitive attraction to the photograph and was to make visible concepts that would challenge and unfold into themselves in a world of fabricated appearances. In an introduction for a book about Michals, Renaud Camus reflected on both the nature of the photograph and of Michals’ relation to it. In this Camus wrote:

Photography is, of course, the art of duplication par excellence. However, the function of duplicating reality does not satisfy Duane Michals, who insists that the important thing is not the appearance of things, but rather their philosophic nature. But what if their philosophic nature were their appearance? Neither the artist nor the thinker in Michals can completely escape this terrible suspicion. 3

Furthering or complicating the “suspicious” essence of the medium, Michals’ work has most often refuted the normative fetishism derived from the instantaneous capturing, and making of the past. Even in his portraiture, he used surreal tempering techniques to disrupt conditioned perceptions. He superimposed, double exposed, and mirrored his subjects such as in Magritte at his easel (1965). Michals uses photography as a vehicle to mediate concepts and ideas. For him, “It is all about consciousness, it is about letting go about your preconceived notions about what life is, what a photograph is.”

© Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York, “René Magritte and his easel”, 1965


Although, well known for his proximity to portraits of artistic master’s of the 20th century such as Magritte (Renée Magritte, 1965), Duchamp (Marchel Duchamp, 1962) and Warhol (Andy Warhol, 1968) to name a few, Michals’ practice is far from defined by these masters. It is defined by his process and his approach to image making. Michals says of his work that, “my pictures are whispering. I tell secrets… It is all about sharing; my work is more like sharing secrets with somebody.” He adds to this by saying that he works with “what is inside, which is the only subject there is. There is no other subject. Everything is filtered through the mind.” However, the intimacy created in his photographs is related to both the subject and the subjects in the image.
Michals’ person and work are marked with a deep curiosity and sensibility to the gentile fragility of the being and of the infinite considerations and ‘strangeness’ this encapsulates. These sensibilities are legible in the carefully composed handwritten text that marks his photographic work such as in, I Am Much Nicer Than God (1980) :

It was last Thursday when David finally died, that I realized that I was much nicer than God. I never would have let him suffer all of those months. And I would have never invented cancer in the first place. I would never let children fall asleep hungry or let old people die alone. But if it is true that I am nicer than God, with my vanity, and petty greed then I am in despair. 4

In his insight into Buddhism, organized religions, and the possibilities of the limitless offered by the universe, it seems that Michals leaves little opinion or knowledge left unknown. He says, “At my age, I am desperate to know because I do not have that much time left. My curiosity is doubled and tripled to the nth power, but I am not the same person I was ten years ago.” Michals’ history is present in conversation, in his nonlinear modality, in his careful weaving and undoing of his own filaments and experiences of time. The questions of ‘being’ in the passages he shared in the interview, iterate a certain tangibility of temporality and of the self within his photographic practice, revealing thoughts that bleed or extend into the themes notably that of god and of death.

© Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York, “The Illuminated Man”, 1968


Through works on death, such as his first sequences, The Spirit Leaves the Body (1968), Death Comes to the Old Lady (1969) and later in Grandpa Goes to Heaven (1989), he refutes and stabilizes both concepts into images and ideas into visual metaphors of how we socially construct and conceive the processes of dying. Michals’ images of death coherently depict a form of objectification, the moving of an idea into a concrete. The idea is his visualization of the narratives that have circulated within popular religious discourses about the spirit’s ethereal departure from the body. Despite refuting mass forms of religion, specifically ideas of God, his earlier work centers around these very ideas. Perhaps, this intrinsic attraction is to the relationship of Christianity and its definitive narrative sequence about death. It is also expressed in his socially shared concern of dying, when he says, “Of course. Who is not afraid of death? About two things: one is the physical pain of death, especially when you get older. And, dealing with Fred’s problems and taking care of him. I have always been interested in the metaphysical things… I have an obsession with death.”

This obsession can be viewed in Death Comes to the Old Lady, a sequence of five images where an old woman is seen sitting alone in a room on a chair facing the camera. She is centered in the frame. A dark suit-wearing man whose face is blurred, moves briskly through the second and third frame entering from behind where the old Lady is seated. As he nears her, his body is no longer discernable, increasingly blurred, other than his hand that graces her shoulder. His touch leaves the old Lady to vanish through a corporeal disintegration. Death is transformed into light particles being pulled upwards in the direction of the thin, vertical stripes of her nightwear. The disintegration of the old Lady, the duality of her presence and disappearance and the form of representation chosen by Michals to render this passage from life to death, from presence to absence, is lightly reminiscent of existential elements found in Francis Bacon’s paintings.

© Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York, “Grandpa Goes to Heaven”, 1989


In Michals’ other early works, he depicts iconography found in religious images, but empties his frames of traditional visual rhetoric. In his sequence, Paradise Regained (1968), where a young man, in the foreground of the image, sits in an office-like setting, staring straight at the camera with a young woman standing to right in the background. Both initially adorned in formal black clothing. As the sequence progresses, their clothing is removed and potted, tropical plants begin to fill the bleak office space until in the sixth image where the man is sitting nude with only a leaf covering his genitals with the woman behind him fully exposed and surrounded by foliage. This image signals a then contemporary visualization of Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden. Another sequence with visible iconography, Christ in New York (1981), is paired with a narrative, beginning with an image of a camera recording a preacher in the room being televised on the a screen in the left corner of the image while a Christ figure looks down on him from behind the television. The caption for this image reads: “Christ is sold on television by a religious hypocrite.” This sequence is meant to depict Christ’s coming back but in the last image of the sequence, he ends up dying, shot by a mugger in an alleyway during his “second coming” after being wronged multiple times by society. Both sequences rely on the viewer’s recognition about compositions of symbols that reference popular religious narratives or ideas.

Michals’ criticism or apprehension of religion is well illustrated in a comment that he made: “My mother said to me once: Why is it that when all you kids, when you go off to College, the first thing you do is forget about God? Hmm… let me think. Asked and answered. Because we got an education.” Although he speaks about forgetting God, Michals’ work is centered on experiences, and religious belief is one such aspect.


The book by Michals’, Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank, exemplifies a different perspective. It is direct and satirical in nature: towards the moneyed aspects of the artworld and its major “stars”. This criticism is seemingly rooted in his understanding of the intricacies of images, representation, and understanding of how they function within society. Michals’ photographs stage situations, but are not defined by them. Since the late 1960s, they often rely on text written “by hand on the surface of his prints” 5, and sequential narrative to facilitate an underpinning investigation, whether of death, of religion, and/or the role of the artist.

With a clear voice, Michals says, “I am in the photography world, but I am not necessarily of the photography world.”Within his critique of a role, the image occupies as fabricated, though often interpreted as a pure, index of reality as he looks critically to Warhol whose work he simply considered as “regurgitations of public images.” His opinion on the manufacturing of both the image and aura of Andy Warhol as artist and of Warhol’s work is well-known. When asked about Warhol as an artist, Michals’ articulated:

© Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York, “Andy Warhol”, 1958


[Warhol was] terrible in everyway. Are you kidding? First of all, he didn’t do his own work. Somebody else did the work. Those are not paintings those are stencils. The only reason he did stencils was because Gerard Malanga knew how to do stencils. He asked other people for ideas; he took other peoples photographs. But, he is the essential American artist. His work was done in a factory, manufactured by other people. He was a victim of violence in a violent society. He was a complete product of publicity […]

Such a comment appears to be a definitive reproach to the manufacturing of copies in their varied forms. Copies in the form of an artist using mechanisms for the sake of reproducing ad infinitum, copies in the sense of taking other peoples ideas, and copies in the reproduction of the idea of fame are antithetical to Michals’ own practice. This position itself rubs up against the reproducible nature of the photograph. Perhaps this is why Michals views the future of the photograph in his comment:
It is about selfies. All photography will eventually be selfies. All photography will end up being selfies. Because there is no other dimension than the reflection of the ego. I never understood why. I am having trouble with photography, most photography … as long as photography remains describing exterior events… as long as photography is telling me what I already know, I do not care about it. […]

© Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York, “Madame Schroedinger’s Cat”, 1998


Photography will end up being a cul-de-sac unless it expands the definition of what a photograph is. I have always questioned the definition of what a photograph is. I began to tell stories with photographs. I said, “why is photography reality?, which reality are they photographing?” They are photographing outside reality. It’s your imagination, its your fears, its your terrors. You are marinated in the reality of your mind is all there is. Everything else is looking at things.
His life is marked by a profound commitment to his partner, Fred. His work, particularly the relationship between text, narrative and image, and his creative process reveal what exists beyond the formal surfaces of perceived reality. To bring back Renaud Camus’ comment that perhaps the essential philosophic nature of the photograph is in fact its appearance, a notion that Michals could not escape from. One could say instead, that he has always used it to constantly reveal and simultaneously disrupt the photographs’ own function.


He makes visible aspects of our being, dreams, desires, and fears, therefore, redefining and expanding our perception of reality. Michals believed that the moving image was an appropriate medium defining our time, yet, he himself created slowness through stills.

These still sequenced images mark his insertion of a delay in narrative through his handwritten notations and in his photograph sequences. In his careful construction of images, Michals’ work drifts past merely “looking at things”, beyond the idea of a bracketed truth or reality. Instead, it relays the critical importance of the intimate, the social and the metaphysical present in his work.




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