February 18, 1932– Duane Michals:
“Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.”
One of my very favorite photographers, Duane Michals is totally self-taught. He began his successful career with his work for Esquire, Mademoiselle, Vogue and photographing the 1968 Summer Olympics for the Mexican Government.
His photography often looks at gay themes. He is especially noted for two innovations in photography that he developed in the 1960s and 1970s: He uses a series of photographs to tell a story, and he uses hand-written text above or below his photographs, giving information that the image alone cannot convey.
His work has been shown in major galleries and museums around our pretty planet and is considered highly collectible. Sir Elton John owns one the largest collections of Michals’ photographs.
Michals grew up near Pittsburgh, part of a Slovakian immigrant family. He didn’t want to work in the steel mills like his father and he left home when he was 17-years-old to study Graphic Arts at the University Of Denver and then served two years in the Army, driving tanks in Germany.
His own photographs are highly manipulated, moody and philosophical. The photographic establishment were shocked when Michals began writing directly onto his prints in his signature scrawl.
By using sequences instead of capturing a single moment, and juxtaposing the images with his text, Michals really changed modern photography. His relentless work ethic, owing to his blue-collar roots, is evident in his prolific output. He explores themes ranging from gender identity to his childhood in Pittsburgh, reinventing himself again and again. He uses allegories to show subjects that are quaint or humorous, but hidden behind them is something sharp.
Michals is a fan and friend of late, great gay children’s book writer/artist Maurice Sendak. They used to take long dog walks together. They collaborated on a whimsical kid’s book, Upside Down, Inside Out, And Backwards (1993). Many of his photographic sequences are about children or life from a child’s point of view. Michals:
“I am a big kid. Grownups don’t do what I do. They leave all this stuff behind. They get rid of it. Everyone wants to be a grownup. Where does that get you? You cannot do anything in my racket, make art, without being a kid.”
Growing up, Michals took Saturday art classes at Carnegie Museum Of Art. He saw art as a way out of Pittsburgh. He loved going to the library and hanging out with friends. He dated girls and never gave much thought to his sexual orientation. He writes:
“We had sissies in 1949. We hadn’t invented gay people yet.”
While in the Army, he wrote to his girlfriend back home, but also wrote to a male buddy, a turning point in his sexual awakening. His letters are published in a beautiful book, The Lieutenant Who Loved His Platoon: A Military Memoir (2011). While in Germany with the Army, he would read and reread a well-worn copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. Whitman’s poetry about his feelings for another man helped Michals deal with his own gayness, and Whitman’s philosophy became an example for Michals’ life.
He was also influenced by the surrealist painters René Magritte, Balthus, and Giorgio de Chirico. He admired the work of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who could capture an instant in time, a flash of reality. But, those definitive moments were too constraining for Michals. He wanted to capture the moment before and the moment after. He began staging stories that looked for a deeper emotional truth.
After the Army, in 1956, Michals studied at Parsons School Of Design, but he left after the first year to become the Assistant Art Director at Dance Magazine and in 1958 he became a designer for Time Magazine.
He lived a quiet life, immersing himself in books of photographic history. His first commission as a photographer was doing the lobby and program shots of the cast for the Off-Broadway production of The Fantasticks, which thanks to a decades long run and many cast changes, gave me steady work.
His first group show was at the tiny Image Gallery in 1959. In 1963, Michals had his first show at the Underground Gallery in Greenwich Village. The photographs were shockingly different for the gallery goers because they included sequences of images. People walked out, Critics declared: “This isn’t photography!” The fake news producing New York Times refused to review the show. People had trouble accepting his kind of boundary-breaking work. They had only just begun to accept single black-and-white photographic rectangles as art.
“I was surprised by the people with knives. But it didn’t stop me.”
He wasn’t trying to be a provocateur. He didn’t do it to be cool. Michals was simply frustrated with the limitations of the single print. He is more cerebral than visual in his approach.
“Though some photographs, such as the Hindenburg catching fire, may be worth a thousand words, many others are deceptive. I could show you a picture of my parents smiling next to each other. They didn’t like each other. They hadn’t kissed in 40 years. Photographs lie all the time.”
His career finally took off after a 1970 solo show at the Museum Of Modern Art. One his pieces from the show was a sequence, Chance Meeting, which shows two men walking toward each other in an alley. One looks back to see if he notices the other. The second man looks back after the first has turned away. It depicts what we used to call back in those zany 1970s, “cruising”.
Michals was ahead of his time in exploring Gay Rights and the struggles of being in the closet. In The Unfortunate Man (1976), a naked man arches in anguish. Shoes cover his extended hands, a metaphor for being closeted. The hand-written text on the photograph reads:
“The unfortunate man could not touch the one he loved. It was declared illegal by the law. Slowly his fingers became his toes and his hands gradually became feet. He wore shoes on his hands to disguise his pain. It never occurs to him to break the law.”
Like Andy Warhol, Michals escaped blue-collar Pittsburgh to live in NYC. Unlike Warhol, he adores his hometown, returning for high school reunions, to visit Carnegie Museum Of Art, and to photograph the city that still defines him.
“I still have this umbilical cord to western Pennsylvania. Most people are so anxious to leave home. I have run away many times, but I have never left. It’s my spiritual home.”
His photographs of his hometown are an honest kind of photographic memoir. The House I Once Called Home (1986) shows the abandoned three-story brick house where Michals was born. That bleak image is juxtaposed with scenes from his childhood, when the place was filled with the energy of his family. Another Pittsburg sequence, Old Money (1992), shows the graves of the industrialists Henry Clay Frick, Willard Rockwell, and members of the MellonFamily at Homewood Cemetery. Michals:
“This is where everyone ends up. Even the Mellons die. Ultimately, this is the trip we take, rich or poor.”
Like Warhol, Michals began to make real money from doing portraits on commission. He dubbed them “prose portraits”. Michals:
“You can’t capture someone, per se. How could you? The subject probably doesn’t even know who the photographer is. So, for me, a prose portrait is about a person, rather than of a person.”
He has shot a variety of subjects, many well-known, including Meryl Streep, Sting, Willem de Kooning. He did a portrait of Magritte in the manner of Magritte. But, he also shoots strangers, acquaintances and friends, all of them in his trademark natural light.
Always reinventing himself, in 2012 Michals began hand painting on found tintypes, an oversized, unique kind of photograph created on a thin sheet of iron, a popular portrait format in the second half of the 19th century. In Rigamarole, he painted an ornate crest with the name Fred on a 19th-century tintype. It is a tribute to Fred Gorrée, his partner of 59 years. The pair married in 2011, just nine days after Marriage Equality came to New York. They live in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of NYC.
“Fred has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and has started saying the most wonderfully strange things. Recently, he said: ‘I saw you eating a banana. What was the meaning of that?’ The other day, he quipped: ‘I wonder what Marco Polo’s doing?’ and, ‘On holidays, everybody likes lemons’. There are so many of them and they’re so sweet.”
“We’ve been together for a long time, and I’ve known him over many incarnations. There’s the infatuation Fred, there’s the long-term Fred, and this is the last of the Freds. But, of all of the Freds that I’ve known, this is maybe the best one. There’s no subterfuge. He says exactly what he feels. I asked Fred, ‘Why do you think we’re here?’ And he replied, ‘To take care of each other’’ I thought that was brilliant. That’s the only meaning! Asked and answered.”