A Conversation With Duane Michals | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation With Duane Michals

The pioneering photographer talks life, death and why, in art, smaller is better

click to enlarge Duane Michals' I Think About Thinking
Image courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery
Duane Michals' "I Think About Thinking" (2000)

Back before the Carnegie Museum of Art got the idea for the retrospective Storyteller: The Photography of Duane Michals — 10 years ago, in 2004 — Duane Michals himself published the book The House I Once Called Home. Michals combined poems and multiple-exposure images made by fusing old photographs he had taken inside his family's home, in McKeesport, with newer images made of the same rooms after the house had become derelict.

The most biographical of any of this pioneering photographer's work, the book suggests the introspection that befalls any artist in the twilight of his career. The decaying house was a metaphor for the artist's own eventual death. It's a topic that has recurred in the 82-year-old Michals' work from early on, in pieces such as "Death Comes to the Old Lady" (1969), "The Spirit Leaves the Body" (1968), "A Man Going to Heaven" (1967) and "Grandpa Goes to Heaven" (1989).

Around the time of the book's release, the documentary film Duaneland was being produced locally, directed by Joe Seamans and Stephen Seliy. I had been invited by the directors, and by the Silver Eye Center for Photography, to participate in a shoot in which Michals and a group of people would look over some of his work inside Silver Eye's South Side gallery.

Our scene ended up on the cutting-room floor, but meeting and interacting with Michals was a great experience. In anticipation of the release of Duaneland, I traveled to New York to conduct an interview for City Paper with Michals in his home. I took the subway to 14th and Union Square and walked the few blocks to his building. It was thrilling and Michals is a wonderful, cordial host. That interview ran as a cover story the week Duaneland was released, with a photograph I had shot of Michals on the cover.

Subsequently, I've tried to see Michals anytime he makes a public appearance here in Pittsburgh. He pops up once a year or so. Trips are harder to make now that his partner of 55 years, Fred Gorée, is housebound with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's afflictions, with Michals caring for him. (They tied the knot in 2011, just a week after same-sex marriage was legalized in New York State.)

In the festive opening days of Storyteller, curated by the Carnegie's Linda Benedict-Jones, I revisited Michals to check in with this mentor of mine, and of so, so many other of my fellow photographers and artists. Here is a transcript of that session.


This whole exhibition, with the combination of your images and your personal art collection, presents a very true and full retrospective, not just of your work but also of your life. Now that you're 82, are you looking to "tie up loose ends?"

No. It's very strange. You're a kid and then an adolescent and then you go to the Army. ... Your grandparents were always old and you never think of yourself like that. But now, the barbarians are at the gate, age is at the gate, and I do want to simplify. The Hindus say that a man does the business of his life and then he prepares himself for his death. I was always attracted to that notion. I would like to simplify, to reduce and to get down to basic things. I don't know how to prepare myself for my death because I am an atheist and I don't have the same bag of tricks that religious people do, but part of the process is having this mega exhibit. It does, to a great extent, tie things up and finish[es] business. It makes me feel good to see how much work I've done!


Linda Benedict-Jones told me a story about putting the exhibition together and borrowing work sold to private collectors, and how when you came to the museum to go over the pieces with her, there were some that you'd forgotten you'd done!

There's a particular photograph here about taking the subway and finding yourself in heaven that I had completely forgotten about! I'm hugely prolific.


Is there any correlation between works like "Who Is Sidney Sherman?", where you critique the art world, and the fact that you haven't had a major museum show like this in the states in over 20 years? Did you piss the art people off?

I don't think about it. If you love your field, and I love my field, you have opinions about it. Anyone who has a vested interest in their field and cares about it has opinions; how can you not? People who have power are museum directors and curators and Sotheby's. I'm just one little voice. I don't have any power. But it's amazing when you say one little critical thing about something institutional! I don't understand the brouhaha with being critical.


The most current work in the show, where you are painting on found antique tintype plates, that's all new, isn't it? Is how you've been working recently — more from inside your home than out shooting photos elsewhere — influenced by your having to be a caregiver to Fred?

 I did do some painting a bit in the '80s, but I always wanted to come back to it. And yes, I have been a caregiver and have been for a number of years. My main obsession is taking care of him. I did the book ABCDuane over the last year and writing it was a great refuge for me to get away from my anxiety over him. I've always explored the idea of death. But now it's a fact. Now I'm dealing not just with the notion of death or the fantasies of the implications of death; now the lion is at the door and it's the real deal.


Have you had any recent revelations about your work?

During the last 10 years, I did a series of Japanese fan photographs. I thought, "Why does a photo have to be squares and rectangles? Why can't they be fan shaped?" Gaugin did 23 fan-shaped paintings, so I did fan-shaped photos. It was very exciting and liberating. After that I did something I called "deconstructed photographs," where I took a picture and then went onto the computer and disassembled the parts and rearranged them in some other way. Then I came back to painting and I've been investigating all kinds of variations on a photograph and what could it possibly be outside of the narrow definition as a way of recording found reality. It also depends on your definition of reality. If you think reality is just looking at objects, that's a very narrow definition of reality. But we live in our disappointments, our lust, our hopes, our anxieties. We live in our passions. If I see a woman crying, then I want to know why she is crying, what it feels like to cry. I think these are all valid questions that nobody asks.


So, you and Fred married since our last interview. Congratulations!

Thanks. I hate marriage. I think it's a failed institution. I did it because Fred and I have been together 55 years, he's got Alzheimer's now and Parkinson's, and if we weren't married, it would be a huge disaster financially. It was just business. Would you go to a doctor if you knew 50 percent of his patients died? Would you go to a restaurant where 50 percent of the food came out burnt?


How did you decide to give your private art collection to the CMA? In the companion show Duane Michals: Collector!, there are some amazing pieces, especially by one of my own favorites, Paul Klée.

click to enlarge Heather Mull with Duane Michals in 2004 outside Silver Eye Center for Photography
CP's Heather Mull with Duane Michals in 2004, outside Silver Eye Center for Photography

 It seemed to be a symbiotic relationship because I had gotten a lot from the museum, in terms of coming here as a kid and I got financial support from the museum [when it purchased prints for the collection,] so what I did was to use the money that I got and turned it around and gave it back to them, in effect. I had the luxury of being able to live with the art and yet know that it has a place to go for future generations. I think giving back is part of getting old; you need to give back.


The word "intimate" comes up a lot in descriptions of your work by you and by others ...

 Intimacy is central to how I get through life. I look at my photographs as being intimate. They are small pictures. They are about intimate things: dying, loss, humor, love. My photographs are all whispers, whereas Gursky and all those others are all shouting. "Here's what a parking lot looks like in Tokyo!" Who gives a shit? If you reduce those large photographs to 8-by-10s, they're nothing. They need the size to have any kind of importance. The art world loves them because they look like paintings today. You go to the museum today and the paintings are huge. You don't see people like Klée, who worked on a small scale. I was in a museum in Dusseldorf and they had one room with four Andy Warhols in it! And then I went into a room half the size that had 20 Paul Klées! Each one was different, each one was exciting, each one was a variation. In America, it's as if everything has to be bigger and larger and there is no room for intimacy.

In my collection, though, there's a large Chuck Close. When you get close to a Close, it's very abstract, and that's one experience with it. Then, as you begin to retreat and the scale begins to change, and eventually, it's a photograph! And you can experience it two or three different ways. A Bob Qualters painting I bought does the same thing. Good work always makes demands on you. 


I think of you as a pioneer of the self-portraits, before the "selfie."

I only did self-portraits if I thought they were funny. I did a portrait of myself as a duck. I did myself as if I were dead. When I turned 40, I wanted to do my portrait as the devil. I don't do them in the same sense as a selfie. Selfies are all just vanity pictures taken in a place to prove you were there. Mine have always been based on some sort of emotional idea, like being dead.


Linda Benedict-Jones also told me you have a funny story about the time you met Sting, prior to shooting the cover of The Police's Synchronicity.

 I didn't know who he was. He had come by an opening I had and I met him but didn't know who he was at the time. Later, I was in L.A. at A&M [Records] to have a meeting about the project and I said to him, "Do you have a hit on the radio now?" He said yes. I said, "Well, maybe I heard it on the drive here. Is it called 'Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" That, I guess, was a song by Boy George, who I had also never heard of. That's not really the way you want to get introduced. He was cool about it.


You've made many pieces about the concept of an afterlife. What do you think is really in store for you?

I'm of two minds. Logically, it makes sense that when the machinery dies, the radio gets turned off. On the other hand, I've seen two ghosts — one was my mother when she died, and the other was in the country, where we live, at night I saw this white image in the hall. I don't know what that was, but I'm completely open to the possibilities. You can forget heaven and hell; being an atheist, of course, I think those concepts are totally ridiculous. I believe in the chi and the energy and going back into the soup. Of course, our ego shouts, "No, not me!" but I'm a ball of energy that's called Duane. I call this my "Duane suit." In the end, I'll go back where I came from ... 14th Street and Union Square. That's where I get off. 

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