As a completely self-taught photographer—he’s never even had a studio!—Duane Michals’ work was among the first to make innovative use of photo sequences, incorporating text to examine emotion, philosophy, and environment. His storied career has included shooting for Esquire, Vogue, Mademoiselle, being the official photographer for the 1968 Olympics, and publishing over 30 books. Treats! pays the groundbreaking photographer a visit in New York City to discuss his new memoir and movie, why he always shoots first and asks questions later, and his rumored alter ego, Stefan Mihal.
Hello, Mr. Michals. How are you?
I’m great. Fit as a fiddle, ready for love.
I hear you have a new memoir?
Yes, you’re talking about my army book. It’s about being gay in the military. It deals with the worst time in my life.
What do you mean?
Being in the army was the worst time in my life and I always wanted to do something about it, but I never had any occasion. What happened was, when I was in the service, I had two great bodies of correspondence. One was with my pretend girlfriend Helen McDonald—we dated all through college—and the other one was with my gay guru from McKeesport, Pittsburgh, Richard McFadden. So fast-forward 40 years and I’m out of touch with both of them. About 10 years ago, I get in touch with Dick McFadden and he said, “I saved all your letters.” Then another few years later, Helen McDonald said, “I saved all your letters. I thought you’d want to read them.” And that seemed to be a funny coincidence from those two years I was in the service 40 years ago. Then, two years ago, I was rummaging through a lot of debris and I found the black hole [at my house] where the letters went. I had this whole wave of nostalgia. The gods were sending me a message. And that’s how it happened.
Is it a straight memoir in terms of format?
It is mostly written in verse because I liked to rhyme. I wasn’t taking photographs then; I only had about two rolls of film and saved all the photographs I had. It’s not a photo book. I wish I could say that the writing was brilliant…but it’s okay. It has the tale-tell marks of the precocious and overwrought, but it was also filled with a lot of genuine terror about being in the military. Like all my writing, I cannot write for effect; it’s all honest. I wasn’t writing literature, writing what I felt in the moment.
Obviously writing and photography are different creative mediums and you have over 30 photography books in print. With your photography you have managed to achieve a high level of recognition in both the commercial and art worlds. Many photographers these days seem to fall into one category or another. How did you manage to master both?
Our minds aren’t just attuned to doing one thing. I love challenges. I loved the challenge of doing commercial work. I thrived on doing something I’ve never done before. Cindy Sherman is doing the same thing she’s always done. A lot of photographers make whole careers doing the same thing over and over, but I don’t. I have 32 books I made. I did a children’s book, I did a book on quantum physics, I did a book about Egypt for a French publisher, and I did a book on my house, about being in the army. There’s a wonderful book if you’ve ever read it called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice. It is a compilation of talks given by Shunryu Suzuki, published by Weatherhill in 1970. The idea is you must always be the beginner because when you do something for the first time you give it all your attention. But, when you do something a lot then it becomes a habit, a tick. Being the beginner forces you to solve something you’ve never tried. I thrive on not knowing what I’m going to do next.
I can totally relate.
I always say I shoot first and ask questions later.
That’s the smarter way. But isn’t it harder to avoid being pigeonholed by the art world? It seems so easy to only get one label. You’re either a fine art photographer or you’re a commercial photographer or you’re a fashion photographer, and so on.
Yes. You do get pigeonholed but as a commercial person, I did everything. I don’t know if I could make it today because what I did was so specialized. I would get these assignments and I would think, ‘What am I doing here?’ I did Paris Collections twice. But I love that I have a very dense career. I’m proud of all of it. I’m proud of my commercial work. I did The Police’s album, Synchronicity; I did the album for Carly Simon.
You’ve often said that you express yourself through your medium. Can you tell me more about that?
Well, the keyword is expression. It’s not about photography, it’s not about tap dancing, and it’s not about painting. It’s about how well you express yourself. I’m quite willing to write or to paint or to photograph. I don’t care. But you have to think, Well, what do I have to express? The trouble with students, especially now, is that they know too much about photography and they have nothing to say. It’s the disadvantage of being young. It’s like [the difference between] reading 100 love stories versus the moment when you finally fall in love. When you’re 20 or 22, you need a lot of life.
What was the first thing you were able to express?
I did a sequence called Sad Farewell, because the first part of my life I was always saying goodbye. I said goodbye to my friends in high school, then I said goodbye to my family, then to my school in Colorado, and then I went to the army and said goodbye to my friends in the army. I spent the first 25 years saying goodbye. But, then I could do a sequence called Sad Farewell, because I hated saying goodbye to people.
Does the ever-changing technology of photography ever inhibit the expression?
When I started I knew nothing about photography. I learned everything by trial and error. That’s the best way. But, I had to know what I was doing. I couldn’t do a Life magazine cover unless I knew how to take a picture. But I never learned how to use a strobe; I don’t know any of that. As I said, people are either defined by the medium or you redefine the medium in terms of your needs. I redefined the medium. But, most people are defined by the medium. I have very little equipment. I always wanted to be a cottage industry. I only have two cameras.
You once said, ”When I came on the scene in the early 60s, to be a photographer meant to be Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange or Cartier-Bresson. Then Diane Arbus appeared, and that was very shocking because she dealt with freaks, a terrible word. Then we had Larry Clark photographing kids shooting up, Joel-Peter Witkin decapitating anything, and Robert Mapplethorpe with whips up inappropriate orifices. Now it keeps escalating, with Andres Serrano peeing on everything and Nan Goldin getting beaten up. Somehow it’s viewed as being honest, but to me it’s just the eternal voyeur looking at low life.” I found this interesting. Can you explain more?
To get rid of anybody you first have to make them the “other.” It’s very easy for a Nazi to say, ‘Ukrainians are subhuman; the Jews are subhuman; they’re not us. They’re not really Germans!’ Although they have lived in Germany for three million years. What Mapplethorpe did is say, ‘We [the gay men] are not you. We love to party and get drunk all the time and wear feathers and gang bang.’ And so what he [Mapplethorpe] did was to “free” museum walls for the self-portrait of a whip up his ass. I think it’s awful. It’s playing the shock game and I never trust shock. I find shock to be the last refuge of the scoundrel as an artist. The same goes for what’s-his-name with his Piss Christ?
Didn’t both Mapplethorpe and Serrano get in trouble with the government for their work?
Probably—and with good reason. They did so much damage to the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] and to good people. It’s not sour grapes because I’ve had a wonderful life and I’ve always talked about my gay issues in my work, but not like that. You have to separate pornography from art and once you pretend pornography is art or call pornography art then you’re really scraping the bottom of the bell. I think Sally Mann is terrific. She’s legitimate. The thing that’s interesting is photography is the one area where there are just as many important women as there are men. You have the recently canonized Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus, Annie Liebowitz, Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, and Woodman. I mean these are all major figures in photography. You don’t get the same thing in any other art. I mean can you name five women painters of the same caliber?
Good point. Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman both had major retrospectives at different museums, Woodman at the Guggenheim and Sherman at the MoMA. What do you think of Cindy Sherman’s recent “canonization,” as you call it?
It’s not that she isn’t talented. We’ve now entered the realm of the museum photograph. With my generation, who came up in the 50s and 60s, it was a very small world. We became photographers out of the passion of being photographers—there were no rewards, there were no museum shows. Helen Gee had this little room in a coffee shop off Sheridan Square where she would pin up Ansel Adams and you could buy them for five bucks. I always thought photography could never be as corrupt as the painting world because the money wasn’t there. But, now the money is there.
Can you talk more about that?
In my satire, Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank, I say I don’t trust any photograph that is so large it can only enter a museum. It is designed for the museum wall. I mean you have to have a 10-foot wall to have a 10-foot photograph on it. And the larger they get the more banal they are. Also the money’s there. So, people like Cindy Sherman are turning out products—she sold a picture for $3,890,500. That’s a product. That’s business. The art world is like Hollywood. You have the major studios and each studio has a stable of stars. And every year each gallery has a stable of stars, too. Unfortunately, I think once you start making products your art career is over. You become a merchandiser; you become a purveyor of art politics. And then that market can consume you. Cindy Sherman is the poster child for the new museum world. Now all these kids are coming out of photography school and they all want to be Cindy Sherman. They all want to be stars! A guy named [Wolfgang] Tillmans photographs his breakfast after he eats it with a snapshot. Then he makes a big photograph.
Okay, a personal question: Is it true you have an alter ego?
Yes. His name is Stefan Mihal.
What is he like?
He’s the guy I never became. Picture your opposite. He’s my doppelganger. He’s the one who got married and had six kids and is still Catholic and still lives in Pittsburgh and believes every lie the Catholic Church ever told. He’s my complete opposite. And if we should ever meet [winks], we would blow up the universe.
Does Stefan take pictures?
No. He watches football, loves the Pittsburgh Pirates, and drinks Lauder beer, and he’s very fat, and has lots of hair.
What does this character help you reconcile or see?
I love the idea. He’s the person I never became. It’s an interesting concept.
Yes, it is. In terms of your work, is it fair to say that you create staged documents?
That’s right. There is a movie we just made, The Man Who Invented Himself. It came from a poem I’d written about the same thing. It’s like what I said, ‘That all things that he experiences in his lifetime are his inventions.’ He invented the moon and the trees and all things visible and invisible and at this moment he is inventing me writing this and you reading this. Yes, you, too, are his invention. If you told him this he would not understand and deny it even though all things that he thought possible became possible and all things he thought impossible were impossible and in the end he would even invent his own death and he would never know that he had invented it all. So that’s the movie.
How long is the film?
It’s a feature documentary film that’s an hour and a half.
Your early sequences are like small storyboards, so a film really does make sense. The concept of a man who invented himself reminds me of what I brought up before: the staged document. You invent the characters in your photographs, which then invent you. Meanwhile, photography plays that trick on the eye, always appearing truthful or real at first.
Well, it›s real in the sense that these people that I photograph do exist, but they [the characters] are all fiction. I consider most photographers to be newspaper reporters and I consider myself to be a short-story writer. They go around and report the facts; Robert Frank reported what he found on the street, and my process was simply the opposite. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have newspaper reporters, but I introduced to photography the possibility of writing poetry, my own [poetry]. I don’t look for life; I know I am life. You can spend your entire life photographing black people, but that doesn’t mean you know a thing about what it feels like to be black—or men photographing women. They’ll photograph tits and ass, but they won’t…. You see you become the artist when you transcend description and you bring insight into what you’re photographing. Photographers are quite happy to just describe what they find. But, without bringing insight, it’s always going to just be description.
Where do you get your inspiration? Is it internal or external?
Has that always been the case?
Yes. It’s like gas. And then you fart and…[laughs].
I’ll write that down! No, but seriously when you define description against interpretation, you sound almost like a writer defining his craft.
Well, that’s nice too. Why couldn’t I possibly be a writer?
You easily could be a writer. Have you ever looked back and wished you’d been labeled a writer versus a photographer?
For instance, right now sitting here talking to you!
Do you think, looking back, that you’ve learned a lot from your work?
If I haven’t, then I must be pretty stupid. I find I’m still learning, too. Learning should never come to an end. I judge people by the quality of their minds and by the questions they ask. I can’t stand people who don’t have any opinion. I am very opinionated. My mother and father would come to see an exhibit with all kinds of stuff going on in it and I would say, ‘What did you think of that?’ And my mother would say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’
Do you feel that your art reconciles a sort of bottomless longing for a purpose or a quest?
People are always chasing the wrong thing. I did a thing for a Swiss magazine years ago. It was about New York. I wrote a little script called “I Dreamed the Perfect Day in New York” and I had to write a little essay. It was about how people from all over the country, the ambitious and talented, come to New York for the rewards of the city. It’s like in Paris—everybody came to Paris at the turn of the century. And maybe in another fifty years it will be Shanghai, but there’s always the city where the talented gravitate to be ambitious, the rest of the people stay home. And why do they come to the city? They come for fame; they come for wealth or money; they come for sex; they come for power. So I did a little story about this kind of thing.
Is there anything that ever got in the way of that creative intuition?
Sure, in the beginning because one doesn’t feel secure if you don’t have history. When you’re young, you’re all future and very little past and when you’re old, you’re all past and very little future. So you have no history by the time you’re 20, you only have your family’s history. Only after 20 do you begin to invent yourself. But up until then, you’re always going to be the son of, the daughter of, etc. Then eventually you evolve—hopefully—out of that. To take a real leap into the future means letting go—and letting go is very difficult. To let go of all of your programming, your prejudices, your family’s prejudices, you have to say you’re not your family. And that’s not disrespectful—you are simply not your family. If I wanted to make my mother and father happy, I’d be living in a township in Pennsylvania with kids, still in the Catholic Church, and with my huge fat wife I haven’t fucked since the wedding night—except for those 3.2 kids. My aunt Mary lived in a little town in Pennsylvania her whole life. She was born in a white house; she died in that white house; she never got married. Life happened—but not to her. Life happened some place else. It’s like that Stephen Sondheim song from Gypsy: [he begins singing] ‘Some people could be content playing bingo…’
Do you listen to music a lot?
Oh, yes. But, I only listen to classical music. I love Beethoven, Prokofiev. I’m always interested in how people became the people they became. What were those ingredients that take a nerdy little kid from Pittsburgh and turn him into Andy Warhol?
You knew him, right?
Yes. Not well. We only necked once [laughs]. Write that down.
What’s your typical routine look like today?
Fred and I are in our eighties and we have a lot of luxuries because when I did commercial work I made a lot of money. We live very quietly. Our apartment is filled with art, filled with flowers, and lots of plants, and books. We have a nice little nest filled with life-enhancing things. And I cook. I have plants in the kitchen, we have a greenhouse, and it’s really nice. There is nothing I want to do that I haven’t done. Most people my age are filled with regret and are broken down. They ate too much, they smoked too much. My dad died at 68 from…his best friends were cigarettes and they betrayed him in the end.
Finally, any advice for young artists today?
You know, students have to realize, in the end, there’s no audience. Students worry about their art. Your mother doesn›t even care what you do. There’s no audience. I never think of an audience. It’s so stupid. What audience? How pretentious is that. I often hear young people say, ‘Oh, I can play the New York game.’ I never played the New York game. I never go to openings; I never go to clubs; I don’t even wear black. Believe me, I’ve heard about people who fuck their way to success. I’d have loved to fuck my way to success!