A true original, McKeesport native Duane Michals literally rewrote the once long-held rules of photography by taking charge of the viewer’s experience, and infusing his work with thought, emotion, and humor.
Internationally renowned artist Duane Michals is a consummate storyteller, and Pittsburgh is the root of his storyline. That’s why more than half a century after leaving for Denver, and eventually New York City, his longtime home, he returns to the Steel City every chance he gets—for commercial assignments, for high school reunions, for visits to the museum that introduced him to art and is now home to his archive. Among his favorite haunts: The Café at The Frick in Point Breeze, City Books on the South Side, and of course his old stomping grounds in his beloved, albeit now worn, hometown of McKeesport.
The oldest son of Slovak immigrant parents, Michals, now 78, grew up in a three-story brick home on unpaved High Street, where his active imagination, which dreamed up adventures in the Big Apple, blossomed. Fellow art star Andy Warhol thumbed his nose at his Pittsburgh roots and never looked back, but Michals—who in the 1960s reinvented the role of photographer from spectator to agent of thought and emotion—has always embraced his modest blue-collar upbringing, relishing its impact on his work ethic.
“I’m a fanatic about Pittsburgh, especially McKeesport,” Michals says from the cozy basement office of his 19th-century brownstone on the east side of Manhattan. “I guess it was such an important part of my life and I have good memories. My grandmother told me that if I worked hard, anything was possible. That if I wanted something, to go get it; that nobody was going to give it to me. So that’s what I did.”
Duane Michals, I Think About Thinking, 2000, The Henry L. Hillman Fund
It was in the bookstore of the former downtown Kaufmann’s that Michals discovered one of his greatest inspirations: Walt Whitman. At age 17, he forked over five dollars earned by delivering the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to purchase Whitman’s well-known collection of poetry, The Leaves of Grass. Drawn to Whitman’s candor, particularly about his close relationships with men, Michals even carried the book into battle during the Korean War, and still owns the same edition today.
Like Whitman, Michals is entirely self-taught. Having never formally studied photography, he instead finds inspiration from poets and Surrealist painters such as René Magritte, Balthus, and Giorgio de Chirico. He has always gone against the grain, focusing his camera inward rather than outward. In the process, he has revolutionized the still photograph.
Casting aside the photographer’s long-held ritual of capturing the decisive moment, Michals introduced image sequences in a cinematic frame-by-frame format in order to tell a story. He didn’t wait for things to happen; he staged events for the camera. He was also the first to write on photographs.
Duane Michals, I Remember Pittsburgh, 1982, Greenwald Photograph
Fund and Fine Arts Discretionary Fund
“Today we think it’s no big deal, but it was sacrilege at the time; truly provocative,” says Linda Benedict-Jones, curator of photography at Carnegie Museum of Art and caretaker of Michals’ photographic archive, which the museum has acquired over the last decade. She’s planning a retrospective of his work for 2014.
“I am an expressionist,” Michals says, “and by that I mean I’m not a photographer or a writer or a painter or a tap dancer, but rather someone who expresses himself according to his needs.”
Michals’ interest in art, like that of generations of Pittsburghers, was cultivated at Carnegie Museum of Art’s Saturday art classes.
“I had my own interests by then,” says Michals. “I used to go to the library and look at art books. I always had the instinct for the aesthetic. But until the classes I didn’t yet know where to scratch, you know, the aesthetic itch.
“Going to the museum was very nurturing. The watercolor classes provided a lot of
latitude, a lot of freedom. And where in McKeesport would I have had the chance to see such great art? So it was thrilling just being inside the museum, especially the Hall of Sculpture.”
A full scholarship led him to the University of Denver, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree. After serving in the Army for two years in Germany during the Korean War, Michals enrolled in Parsons School of Design in New York to study graphic design. But after a year, he left for a job in publishing. In 1958, at age 26, he was working as a designer in the publicity department of Time Inc. when he decided to bum money from his parents and go on a three-week adventure to Russia.
With a borrowed Argus 3C camera, Michals ventured behind the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War. He wandered around Minsk taking portraits of everyday people—a sailor, schoolchildren, even a monkey trainer in a circus. The experience altered the course of his life. “I was a natural,” says Michals about photography. “I found my bliss.”
Duane Michals, Things are Queer, 1993, Director's Discretionary Fund
Within two years, he was making a living from commercial work, and in his five-decade-long career, he’s done it all: fashion spreads for Vogue, cover shots for LIFE magazine and Time. He even starred in an ad campaign he created for the GAP and produced the cover art for The Police’s album Synchronicity. He began exhibiting what he calls his “personal work” in 1963. When his peers caught a glimpse of one his first sequences, The Spirit Leaves the Body, a seven-frame narrative using multiple exposures to depict a spirit rising from a dead man, they discounted him, calling him a flash in the pan. But the art world almost immediately embraced him. Today, his photographs belong to museums around the world, from Jerusalem to Kyoto, Japan.
“I am an expressionist, and by that I mean I’m not a photographer or a writer or a painter or a tap dancer, but rather someone who expresses himself according to his needs.”
- Duane Michals
Unlike the photographic greats who came before him—Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank—Michals has never been interested in how things look, but rather how they make you feel. “It’s the difference between reading a hundred love stories,” he explains, “and actually falling in love.”
He never walks around with a camera looking for something to photograph. Blurring the lines between photography and philosophy, Michals is curious and a deep thinker. Most of the themes he tackles—the universe, life after death, desire, dreams, loss—require some serious soul-searching, on his part and the viewer’s.
“It’s not the shooting—shooting is the easiest part,” he explains. “For me, it’s what do I care about, what makes me angry, what scares me? Figuring that out and being moved to somehow find a way of illustrating it.
“Photographing tears as a way to show sadness just never did it for me,” he adds. “It doesn’t tell you, doesn’t make you feel, anything real.”
Creating the visual riddle
One of Michals’ photographs with text from 1976, Certain Words Must Be Said, could easily be interpreted as a crisis of feelings between two women, possibly lovers. But it’s only through the handwritten text that we sense the root of their tension: Things had become impossible between them and nothing could be salvaged. Certain words must be said. And although each one had said those words silently to herself a hundred times, neither had the courage to say them out loud to one another. So they began to hope someone else might say the necessary words for them. Perhaps a letter might arrive or a telegram delivered that would say what they could not. Now they spent their days waiting. What else could they do?
“It’s about a kind of intimacy and privacy and whispers,” Michals offers. “What I want is the part of you that you’re embarrassed about. That part of you that you don’t want to tell anybody out loud.”
At 14, Duane Michals scratched his "aesthetic itch" during Saturday art classes at Carnegie Museum of Art. Here he's pictured in the museum's Hall of Architecture, often the site of the museum's art classes.
- Photo: Josh Franzos
It works, at least in part, because Michals himself is vulnerable in his work. He often casts himself as a character, exposing not only his body but his personal stake in discussions of attraction, aging, desire, love, and mortality.
“I don’t trust reality,” says Michals. “So all of the writing on and painting on the photographs is born out of the frustration to express what you do not see.”
Many of the artist’s strongest works, Things Are Queer among them, force viewers to peel away layers of a story, much like you would in a captivating novel. Benedict-Jones, who was 23 and living in Portugal at the time Things Are Queer was published, invested a lot of time and effort doing just that.
“I was completely spellbound. I couldn’t put it down,” she says about the nine-image sequence that features, simply put, a bathroom and an evolving perspective. “I didn’t know how he did it. I had to puzzle it. It was a visual riddle to solve. I was impressed by the work of all the great photographers of that time—Diane Arbus, W. Eugene Smith, Brassaï—but none grabbed me in the same way. None engaged me in the way Duane Michals did.”
Never one to hide who he is, how he feels, or what he thinks, Michals has never shied away from controversy. Gay themes have always been a central part of his work; but he’s always refused to treat his personal identity as separate from the shared human condition, making his work accessible to a wide audience.
That’s not to say that his work isn’t politically charged. In one of Michals’ most recognizable images, Salvation, a priest holds a crucifix like a gun against a young man’s head. Published in The New York Times as part of a 1980s series that asked artists to show or write what they thought about conditions in America, Michals’ photograph was accompanied by text that read: No American has the right to impose his morality on another American. The following day, his mom, a lifelong Catholic, called to tell him, “The priest talked about you in his sermon this morning.”
Michals also has a sharp wit, and he’s not afraid to wield it. In his book Foto Follies: How Photography Lost its Virginity on the Way to the Bank, he pokes fun at the current state of contemporary photography and the overblown art market. Using over-the-top and penetrating picture-stories, he takes aim at the likes of some of today’s hottest art stars, including Cindy Sherman, Thomas Ruff, Sherrie Levine, and Andres Serrano.
“They’ve lowered the bar on photography,” says Michals. “The only thing that’s happened with photography since black-and-white kicked the bucket in my generation is that photographs have become larger and outrageously expensive.”
Home, sweet and complicated home
Michals’ family life, particularly his “non-relationship” with his steelworker father, informs much of his work. It was shortly after his father died that Michals started writing and painting on his images. “The floodgate just opened,” he recalls. “Suddenly I could expand my expression.”
Duane Michals, A Letter from My Father , 1960-1975, The Henry L. Hillman Fund
Admittedly, Michals’ work has become even more intimate as he’s aged. In 2003, after publishing two dozen books, he returned to McKeesport to produce his most personal project yet, The House I Once Called Home: A Photographic Memoir With Verse. He had just turned 70, and the journey back to the house where he was born and raised, now dilapidated and empty, was a powerful one. In Duaneland, an upbeat documentary starring McKeesport as much as Michals, the artist retraces his steps, explaining how he superimposed new photographs onto much older images taken in the same location during his childhood. The resulting work suggests the ghostly presence of the long gone, producing a layering of time and emotion that is at the heart of Michals’ art.
“The house had grown old with me,” he says, “and it was my vehicle to deal with my history and my family.”
This past fall, he wrapped up his latest book project, The Lieutenant Who Loved His Platoon, a memoir about being gay in the military. At 21, Michals had gone into the Army right out of college.
“I had never seen a tank in my life, so I got a commission to quartermaster [providing quarters, rations, and clothing to his battalion],” he recalls. “Everybody has something, their hardest moment—maybe you get divorced or whatever it is—but we all have something, and that’s what I measure rotten against. That was rotten.”
How does he feel about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? “It’s not really an issue anymore because when all the old fogies die, young people don’t care about it. It’s becoming a non-issue.”
Michals has always used the most basic photographic techniques—double exposure, sandwiched negatives, and superimposed images—to explore big ideas. He’s never learned how to use strobe lighting, choosing instead to make images using only natural light.
He’s also never owned a studio, preferring to work in the basement office of the home he’s shared with his partner of 50 years, Frederick. Their basement laundry room doubles as his showing room—“It has the best light in the house!” Michals exclaims.
While his home is filled with art, the work of only one photographer is on display: André Kertész, a Hungarian-born image-maker who also worked in black-and-white and is best-known for his candid moments and compositional genius with what was then the new 35mm camera.
Duane Michals, The Unfortunate Man, 1976, The Henry L. Hillman Fund
“I don’t really collect photographs,” says Michals, “but I knew Kertész. I photographed him, he lived around the corner from me, and I’ve always had a strong affinity for his work.
While Michals doesn’t teach, he’s incredibly generous with his time and enthusiasm for the medium. He recently took the stage in Pittsburgh with Lynn Zelevansky, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art, sharing memories of his longstanding relationship with the museum, as only Michals can—with a frankness and humor that left the audience wanting more.
“Pittsburgh is important to Duane Michals,” says Benedict-Jones, “and Duane Michals is important to Pittsburgh.”