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Duane Michals: Photographer Or Metaphysician?

"The Annunciation" by seminal photographer, Duane Michals.
"The Annunciation" by seminal photographer, Duane Michals.
Duane Michals: Photographer Or Metaphysician?
What if a camera could capture death? Or desire? Or jealousy? More than any other photographer, Duane Michals has spent his career pushing the medium of photography to capture the metaphysical. We'll talk to Michals about what motivates his photography.

Mr. Michals will lecture this evening at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla at 7:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by the San Diego State University Art Council.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Cameras take pictures of things, artists take pictures of ideas, and one of the first photographic artists to make his ideas into pictures is my next guest, Duane Michals. At a time when the great names in photography were still deeply involved in exploring the natural world, Michals explored his own world, staging events for the camera, working in picture sequences to tell a story, and painting and writing on his photographs. Michals says we can go on forever photographing faces and places, or aspire to a photography that transcends description. His work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty and here at our own Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park. It’s my pleasure to welcome photographer Duane Michals to These Days.

DUANE MICHALS (Photographic Artist): Hi.


CAVANAUGH: Hi. Now you’ve said that you’re an artist formerly known as a photographer. What do you mean by that?

MICHALS: I have actually no idea. I thought it sounded good. No, no, there’s – we made these artificial categories now where one’s a photographer and one’s an artist, and there are whole groups of people who claim to be artists but they use the camera and – but they’re not photographers. Well, you know, of course if it walks like a duck and squawks like a duck, it’s a picture of a duck. And I think that that’s an artificial category to say one is an artist who – it’s condescending and that’s – You can always say Robert Frank is not an artist, you know, and it’s just totally ridiculous. It’s an artificial issue.

CAVANAUGH: So do you regret a lot of things that you say?

MICHALS: No. Luckily, I forget what I’ve said so it leaves room for a lot of contradiction.

CAVANAUGH: Let me talk about your career in photography. How did you begin? How did you get started?


MICHALS: Quite by accident, and that was my saving grace because I had never planned to be a photographer. I never went to photography school. I had an esthetic itch, you know, like some people have – are naturals, they’re playing ball when they’re five years old and by ten years old they’re already in Little League. And then there are other people who, like Mozart, were in music. Well, there’s a whole category which I call esthetics and these are people – I’ve could’ve done something as a writer or – And, anyway, to make a long story short, I ended up going as a tourist to Russia in 1958 with a borrowed camera. I was working at Time, Inc. doing promotion material for the Sports Illustrated and those magazines and I found out you could go which meant borrowing five hundred dollars from my mother and father and eating sandwiches for six months. And I took a camera and if I hadn’t taken the camera, I never would’ve been a photographer.

CAVANAUGH: What did you find about that – using the camera that you liked?

MICHALS: Well, it’s what you did – I never thought about it. I mean, you know, when you – I was taking a trip, I should take a camera. You know, you take pictures. And while I was there, I had more nerve than I would’ve had in New York City and I would stop people. I learned how to say in Russian, may I take your picture? And that’s how I got involved and then when I came back, I had no thoughts of being a photographer but I found what I should be doing. As Joseph Campbell would say, I found my bliss.

CAVANAUGH: Your bliss.

MICHALS: That’s right.

CAVANAUGH: And you did work as a photographer for magazines and fashion…


CAVANAUGH: …shoots and things like that.

MICHALS: Yes, I’ve done a lot of commercial work. I’m the compleat photographer. There are those photographers who have made a whole career doing commercial work but have never had a museum show and then there are others who’ve only had museum shows but couldn’t survive for five seconds in the real world of photography. But I’ve done absolutely everything. I’ve done Life covers and Time, Sports Illus – not Sports Illustrated, bathing suit issue, I didn’t do that. But anyway, I’m distracted there for the wrong reasons. But – So I’ve done, you know, Synchronicity, I’ve done albums, Carly Simon and different people.

CAVANAUGH: When did you decide that you were going to try to do something a little different with your photography?

MICHALS: Well, it came out of the frustration because I didn’t come up through the ranks as a photographer and I didn’t learn the rules in photography school. I then had to – I found what interested me were things like what happens when you die? I mean, traditional photographers would photograph a corpse or they would photograph people crying in black at the cemetery. That’s what things look like. See, I’m much more interested in what something feels like, so if I see a woman crying, I want to know what’s the nature of her grief? Why is she crying? So I became very frustrated with the limitations of the medium which eventually evolved into my writing with photographs because, again, I was frustrated – so I wasn’t being hip and cool, I’m not – See, I don’t even wear black. I’m never hip and cool. I’m charming.

CAVANAUGH: No, you are not wearing black. I want to tell our listeners. I am speaking with Duane Michals, photographer Duane Michals, and he will be giving a lecture this evening at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla. And, you know, photography, lots of people have thought of it as sort of the black sheep of the art world.

MICHALS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: And do you think that the medium has now finally surpassed this image and is recognized as a true art form?

MICHALS: Oh, but in the worst possible way.


MICHALS: Well, people of my generation who became photographers in the late fifties, early sixties, there were no rewards in photography. There were no museum shows. Maybe MOMA would show something or Chicago. There were no galleries. Nobody bought photographs. You could buy an Ansel Adams print for $5.00 at the back of the Limelight Coffee Shop in the Village. So you entered photography because of the passion for the film – for the field. And if you became famous, it was a very small fame, you know. But nowadays that photography has become officially an art, it used to be photography was all about the passion for photography but never about money; now it’s all about money and not about photography anymore, now that we have $300,000 photographs and million dollar photographs. And I felt that the photography could never be as corrupt as the art world because the money was never there.


MICHALS: But now the money’s there and now that it’s there, we have the cult of I call it the museum photograph. I did a book called “Foto Follies,” or “How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank.” It’s a satire, and I meant – I said I’d never trust any photograph that’s so big it can only fit into a museum because now that’s not about photography anymore, it’s about a product, it’s about when you walk in you see a, you know, a ten-foot Gursky photograph of a lobby of a hotel in Tokyo. I mean, please, you know, so – but that looks like what art looks like and that’s why it’s so popular and it’s another product nowadays.

CAVANAUGH: But you yourself have been influential in turning photography into that artform.

MICHALS: Well, what I – And I hate the word art. You know, we should call it Scrabble or something. We should invent a whole new word for it. No, but it really doesn’t matter. What really matters is that the person expresses his passion or his anger or – And no matter how you do it, it really doesn’t matter. But I said an eight-by-ten photograph of a Robert Frank picture actually could be quite heroic but an eight-by-ten foot Gursky picture of a parking lot in California someplace, that’s just a billboard with pretensions. You know, it’s just ridiculous.

CAVANAUGH: I’d like to describe for our listeners some of the kinds of photographs that you are most famous for.

MICHALS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: You’re famous for taking sequential photographs. Tell us what that is. It’s basically telling a story in photographs, right?

MICHALS: Exactly. Well, you know, picture this. New York, 1969, people – we – the menu of photography, the paradigm, said you could be Robert Frank or Ansel Adams or Irv Penn or Avedon, essentially about the decisive moment, which is a really wonderful strength of photography, what it does that no other field, nothing can do. I was interested in, again, metaphysical issues like what happens when you die? So I did a little sequence called “The Spirit Leaves the Body.” So you saw this dead – supposedly dead man on a bed and I double exposed him getting up, walking away, so I did the moment before and the moment after. I simply stretched – It’s more like haiku where you just stretch one moment to two moments to three moments to four moments, and it suited me very well because I – Then I could get into all sorts of arcane, esoteric subjects. Photographers only photograph what they can see and yet the most important things in your life are your feelings: grief, passion, if somebody you love walks out on you. You know, you’re miserable. Your life is destroyed.

CAVANAUGH: You did this famous sequential photograph of two men passing each other on the street.

MICHALS: Yeah. Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.

MICHALS: That was called “Chance Meeting” and it has a lot of implications. Of course the easiest one to do is I’m being gay. It’s a classic gay situation where two men pass each other and there’s a moment of recognition. But it really came from during the Korean War I was a second lieutenant tanks in Germany for two – Anyway, and I was walking through Times Square and I – this fellow passed me by and I thought, God, that looks so – who is that? And then about two blocks later, I think that’s the guy I was in the Army with. And when I turned around, he was gone. So it was that – So I would operate from those instincts. I never look for something. I always work out of my own passions and my own aware – my own consciousness.

CAVANAUGH: If you tell a story like that…

MICHALS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …in a sequence of photos…

MICHALS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …did you ever think of moving to video, to cinematic form of storytelling?

MICHALS: Oh, yeah, I would – I’m a great – I’m a really – I’m very verbal. Do I get paid by the word here? Or how do we do – you know. We never signed anything.

CAVANAUGH: No, we never talk money.

MICHALS: Oh. Hmm. Well, but anyway, I would love to make a movie but I’d have to write it. I’d have to – and it wouldn’t be one of those photographing your best friend in drag and beside, you know, out of blurry with smoking joints. But I want Meryl Streep, I want $60 million, I want to write it, I want to be in it, I want to direct, I want a real movie, not one of these imitation movies.

CAVANAUGH: And nobody’s offered that to you?

MICHALS: Not yet. I’m in Cal – Hello? I’m available. Yeah, one camera, no waiting.

CAVANAUGH: You know, you have – you are known for having, as you said, huge ideas. Wanting to photograph the moment of death…


CAVANAUGH: …and so forth. How do you go about synthesizing emotions like envy or anger or jealousy? What do you do in order to find a photograph to set that up for an image?

MICHALS: I don’t know but I’ll tell you one thing, I trust my intuition. I’ve got dynamite intuition. And every time I’ve not paid attention to it and ignore – I’ve made mistakes. So I’m very much in synch with whatever that consciousness is. It’s simply paying attention to what pops into my head. Things pop into our heads all the time, especially photographers, but they rely on their eyes and I rely on my mind to – and I love that moment of genesis when I think of something and it’s, oh, that’s the best moment. I love it. It’s the act. It’s the touching of my mind to the camera, which is very exciting.

CAVANAUGH: Do you ever get the feeling that it’s been fully realized?

MICHALS: Well, yes. I – For that moment but then it’s a sort of a gestalt; you’ve got to put all these moments together and suddenly you get a life. Yeah, but it’s a deep, deep satisfaction and I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know you grew up in the same town as Andy Warhol. Did you know him?

MICHALS: No, Andy was four years older than I was and it’s McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a little steel town…


MICHALS: …which went belly up in the late seventies. But Andy got – his family got uppity and moved to Pittsburgh so, you know. I knew Andy early on when he first – when I first came to New York and he was new – relatively new but – and we saw each other because we had a lot in common, steelworker family background, same…


MICHALS: …you know, ethnicity. I can’t say words over two syllables. Ethniticity (sic).

CAVANAUGH: Ethnicity.

MICHALS: That’s where you’re the pro and…

CAVANAUGH: You know, I want to – I’ve heard that you’re – you know, you’ve been saying you’re critical about the way that art photography is going and we should come up with another word for it like bacon or something. But…


CAVANAUGH: …if you could predict the future…

MICHALS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …of really good photography, let’s just not say art or anything like that. What do you think is going to be happening in the field of still photography?

MICHALS: I have absolutely no idea. But what I’d love to see – I don’t like photographers to tell me what I can see with my own eyes. I know what trees look like and cars and parkways and – Photography shouldn’t be just about observation. That really limits it. Why don’t they photograph dreams? I mean, we spend a third of our lives doing – and I’m sure people have more interesting dreams than their – but it’s – they have to enlarge the menu. They’ve got to start thinking outside of the box, not just a little definition of people are what they appear to be in a portrait. They’re not. People are not at all what they appear to be. The big – Look at Pat Robertson. I mean, the biggest scoundrels can look like somebody’s benevolent grandfather, you know, or – So I don’t know. You have to – Every generation should reinvent the medium. When I say God, I don’t mean what the Pope means. When I say patriotism, I don’t mean what Rush – Thrush Limbaugh means. So, you know, that’s responsibility and to redefine everything in terms of their own needs. I’m an impericist. I believe in direct knowledge, direct experience being the only true knowledge. And most people go through life reading love stories and never falling in love but they’re two different experiences. So photographers always reading other people’s love stories, other people’s faces, other people’s houses, other people’s rooms, something they know nothing about but they will never talk about their own truth, and that’s the difference.

CAVANAUGH: I – We have to stop it there.

MICHALS: Oh, no.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks so much. Thank you for coming in and speaking with us.

MICHALS: Okay. My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that Duane Michals will be lecturing this evening at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla at 7:30. The event is sponsored by the San Diego State University Art Council. And if you’d like more information on it, you can always go to You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.