In the 1960s milieu of "straight" or strictly documentary photography, Michals pioneered the then-shocking notion of constructed and sequential imagery in photography. He used models in multi-frame psychological dramas and employed experimental camera techniques like double exposure to create surrealistic moods or depict supernatural phenomena such as life after death. In doing so, he posed complex philosophical questions and challenged the tenet that photography be un-posed, un-manipulated, unmodified.
Traditional photographers were aghast again when Michals began writing directly onto his prints in his signature scrawl, though what was scandal then is now assigned in undergraduate photography courses.
Last year, after publishing over two dozen books, Michals returned to McKeesport and began work on his most personal project yet, The House I Once Called Home: A Photographic Memoir with Verse (Enitharmon Editions, 2003). The tome is the intersection of Michals' familial and artistic autobiographies and has been the starting point of a video documentary on Michals, conceived and produced by the Mon Valley Education Consortium, scheduled for completion this year.
Today Michals globetrots between projects and exhibitions in Germany and Switzerland, shoots spreads for French fashion magazines, and is working on a book about quantum physics. He lives in the Grammercy Park area of Manhattan with his partner of 44 years.
What is your opinion of Pittsburgh these days?
All the cities that Pittsburgh wants to emulate -- Dallas, Houston, Atlanta -- they're dreadful, dreadful places! They're flat, hot, and unattractive with no physical charm at all and spaghetti networks of highways. It's disgusting. Pittsburgh is a little gem. The Point is beautiful, the new convention hall is terrific; it has great universities, a wonderful museum, and a lot to recommend it. Rather than seeing itself as a competitor with other cities, Pittsburgh should enhance its elegance and be proud of that.
The Ferris Wheel was invented in Pittsburgh. Why don't they build a giant Ferris Wheel there? That's the sort of thinking we need, not "how are we going to get more department stores?" The future always belongs to dreamers. If you're not going to dream now, then when? When are you going to do the fucking dreaming? Now's the time for fucking dreaming!
Why don't you run for mayor?
No, not this time around. Maybe in my next life. You know, I'm going to be out of here in about another 14 years. Everybody in my family goes at about 85, 87. I'm 72 now. But I'm just looped about Pittsburgh.
How did The House I Once Lived In come about?
The New Yorker asked me to photograph Larry Kramer, who had been operated on for a liver transplant in Pittsburgh. I had never met Larry Kramer and he's a great gay icon, a very important man in the history of homosexuality in the United States. I was dying to meet him. Also, I love any excuse to come home. I said to my assistant, "Let's go see my old house in McKeesport." I was there for my 50th high school anniversary in '99 and the house was completely grown in with trees and I was shocked. I knew it had been abandoned, like most of McKeesport. I am still very, very fond of McKeesport.
When I went into the house -- that was just a few weeks after I had turned 70 -- I felt I had come full circle. Here I was back in the room where I was born. It was a profound moment. The house was dead, but I remembered it. I came back a few months later and brought back some old photographs that I'd taken there. The house became a metaphor for my life and life in general. The house had grown old with me. And it was also a metaphor for death. It gave me a vehicle, a raison d'Ãªtre, to deal with my history, to deal with my family and a lot of issues.
Compared to your earlier work, The House I Once Called Home feels more like traditional documentary work because it's telling a real story, the story of your life.
I am a storyteller but I don't call this "documentary." To "document" the house means that I would have simply taken the photographs. This is a memoir. Photographers love old houses like this but they never knew who lived there. Anybody can document my house, but nobody but I can write the memoir.
At the end of the book you wrote: "Our little lives are thus, perfect in their pain and happiness." Did confronting your memories sadden you?
I felt a lot of sadness. In dredging up and reliving the past, though, our memories are selective. My mother and father were really nice people, completely mismatched, and their lives would have been so much more interesting if they'd been more bold, a little more honest, a little less adhering to their families. I was the first person in our family to leave, which is so typical. You have first-generation immigrants who come over and work to get established. All my aunts and uncles lived within five miles of McKeesport. Then, my generation, the second generation, we all took off. My brother went to Philadelphia and became a psychiatrist. All the cousins went away and married and became upwardly mobile.
In Real Dreams you said, "I use photography to help me explain my experiences to myself." What did The House project explain to you about your experiences?
In my life now, I've begun to delve into "Duane's Wizbang Box of Old Time McKeespsort Memories" and pull out stuff about my mother and father's relationship. Now that all the principals are dead I can talk about her having a relationship with another man, the great love of her life, which she didn't have the courage to seize. And there are little memories, like my grandmother always having a cat named Petunia -- how no matter how many cats she had it was always the same name -- and how my two aunts and uncle were "lost in the labyrinths of their minds" due to Alzheimer's.
Would you have become the Duane Michals we know now if you hadn't left home?
I was never destined to live in McKeesport. It was never an option. I'm a certain kind of personality --a hybrid -- and by "hybrid," I mean "misfit," or "nerd," or "queer," but not in the gay sense. In high school the most interesting people are usually the nerds. Andy Warhol is still the greatest nerd of all time -- talk about Revenge of the Nerds! Can you see Andy, king of the zits, going bald in high school? Please! With that little mincey voice of his!
What was your relationship to Warhol, who you photographed with his mother, Julia, in New York?
Andy was about four years older than I am. He went to Taylor-Alderdice, so we didn't know each other in Pittsburgh, but we knew each other in New York. Like all mushrooms, it takes a certain kind of humidity, a certain kind of decay to become what they are, and Andy blossomed because he was the right person at the right time. If things had been off just slightly, he wouldn't have occurred. His first work was shown in little gay galleries and his first crowd was hairdressers. He was kind of a nebbish gay kid who really turned every fault into a virtue and got everything he wanted. The trouble with Andy was that he was too popular during his lifetime, which made him suspect. Now he's bigger than ever. But I think work should be demanding and Andy's work isn't. I'm not a fan, but we were friends for a period and I liked him a lot, personally. He was very nice and very, very strange.
In The House I Once Called Home, you refer to your adolescent awareness of your homosexuality. What was making that discovery like for you, living in the mill town of McKeesport with your Catholic family?
We're talking about 1945-46. First of all, gay shmay -- we didn't know what "gay" was. I had no references at all. The recollection in the book was about a Prince Valiant comic strip I saw in the Sunday Post-Gazette and how I remember seeing him in that little thong thing. I was aware of my fascination with that image, but, of course, I kept on dating [girls] and necking, assuming I was straight. In retrospect, I know that this was my very first inkling that I was gay.
Did you find Pittsburgh a challenging place to be gay?
For two years during the Korean War, I was a second lieutenant in tanks in Germany. When I got out of the Army, I came home and went to Kaufmann's, where my mother worked, to get a job for the summer. When I went in, they saw art training on my resume and gave me a job in the window-trimming department. Well, most window-trimming departments are the home of every raving queen in every city. So I thought, "My God, Kaufmann's window-trimming department must be filled with raving queens!" Well, it was the straightest window-trimming department in the world! I couldn't believe it. In Pittsburgh, wouldn't you know it, not a gay guy in sight!
What do you think about photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe who deal with their sexuality in their work?
I've never liked Mapplethorpe. I don't mind that he did what he did, but for someone who was so professionally gay, he showed no insight into homosexuality. He defined it the same way that Reverend Falwell would. You've got a self-portrait with a whip up your ass; you've got guys in harnesses, guys dressed like queens. He fulfilled every fantasy and every prejudice that any [homophobe] would have. I believe in the legitimacy of affection between people of the same gender.
Did you study writing formally?
When I was in high school, I was the editor of The McKeesport Red and Blue, but I didn't study writing. I just began to write. It was the same with photography. I was lucky that I didn't learn the rules or go to photography school because if you learn the photo rules, you've then got to unlearn them. I've always trusted my instincts.
What rules of photography did you break?
When I became a photographer, the rules of photography were: You can be Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, or one of the six people who defined the genre. I began to write with my photographs and that was a big no-no. My early work was ignored -- the first show I had was not reviewed. The critic from the [New York] Times asked: "What the hell is this?" Gary Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz walked out of the gallery. At that point they were marinated in reportage photography as being the only photography. My stuff wasn't photography! I used six pictures when the "decisive moment" was what you were supposed to do. "The Spirit Leaves the Body"? [Michals' 1968 seven-frame sequential image utilizing multiple exposure techniques to depict a spirit rising from a dead man.] What was this shit?
It caught on instantly with the art world, though. By 1970 I had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art with this same material. I feel that you are either defined by or you redefine your medium. I redefined photography.
Does photography ever feel limiting to you?
Yes! Years ago I got involved in writing with photographs because I was instantly frustrated by the stillness of the photograph. I love Robert Frank and I remember being so pleased to find out that he was beginning to write on his photographs. Early on he wrote that he'd abandoned still photography because he wanted to take charge, to be the director; he didn't want to always wait and look for things to happen, and those were my instincts too. I expanded the still moment with writing. I was always a big questioner. I say, abandon your eyes. What you have to do is enter your mind and start asking questions. People are not taught that. They don't even know what questions to ask. Questions are very fundamental and my work is based on questions.
Who is a photographer working now who you like?
Arthur Tress is very good, one of the unknown weirdo photographers. I think about really bad photographers like William Eggleston, who is just terrible, and then there is Arthur, who has been holding on his whole life, just managing to keep his head above water, and he's really an original! I like people who are really original. They're out there but they never get the press. They never get the attention like the Cindy Shermans.
Really, I'm so bored with photography that I cannot tell you! And I'm so bored with new photography because it's just old photography, except it's bigger and more boring and in color and much more expensive. No new ground has been broken in photography in ages. All those German photographers are just doing very large photographs of parking lots in Tokyo.
Richard Avedon knows that the next five books he's going to do will look like the last five: people standing in front of [seamless backdrops] staring at you. I wouldn't have conceived of the House book five years ago. Five years before that I wouldn't have conceived of doing Questions Without Answers. I don't know what I'll be doing five years from now. That's what I love. Creativity comes from not knowing what the hell you're going to do.
You are embraced by the art world and have gallery shows all over the world, but a disdain for the art world comes out in works such as your series "Who Is Sydney Sherman?" where you parody the works of some of today's hot art stars like Cindy Sherman. Where does this come from?
I have a love/hate relationship with the art world. In the art world, galleries are the only game in town, the only place to show your work. The art world is so corrupt. When I first became a photographer, I thought photography wouldn't be corrupt because there was just no money in it. But now there's money and the more money involved, the more the work becomes corrupted. Now that photography has gone into the realm of $250,000 for a print, it's lost its virginity in the worst possible way. When somebody does a photograph that is so large that it can only fit into a museum, you know it's all over. The power of photography is that a Cartier-Bresson print doesn't need to be 10-feet tall to move you. When the only value or new thing about a work is that it's enormous, photography has really gone down a slippery slope.
I love doing shows, but I've never lived off of my private work. I've always lived off my commercial work. I'm delighted when people buy something, but I don't care about it. I didn't do this book to become rich and famous. It's not about making money. This is something that I needed to do, which is what art is about. Art comes from a place of need. You need to express something. The need is not to become famous, to become rich. The need is to get that bug up your ass onto a piece of film or on a piece of paper. It's like when Bill Moyers did that series with Joseph Campbell and they talked about "finding your bliss." Well, I've found my bliss...and it itches.
Do you still spend time in the darkroom?
I haven't printed in 30 or 40 years!
Romantic poet William Blake also worked with image and word. Do you feel a parallel to him artistically?
Oh, I love him! Blake was so extraordinary because he invented language. And I love the handwriting in his work. I like the way mistakes look and when I make them, I leave them. I don't want to be perfect. Once you become perfect, you're not human anymore. To be human is to be flawed, and the more perfect you become -- the perfect body, the more face jobs, the more cosmetics that you wear -- the less human you become. Poetry comes out of vulnerability. And the audience for poetry is small. A photographer who writes doesn't have a huge audience, not the way a photographer who makes a 10-foot picture of a nude with big tits does. That always gets attention. But the pleasure in poetry is always in nuance.
Poets rarely write in rhyming verse as much any more. Isn't it odd that you're a bit of a traditionalist as a writer, yet a completely non-traditionalist photographer?
I love to rhyme. I cannot stop. It's so corny! As a photographer I've always been an iconoclast. As a gay guy, well, I think I'm also a very strange gay guy. And I'm also a strange writer in the sense that I'm against the grain. I'm not an intellectual and I hate poetry that sounds intellectual and pretentious, which is what most professional poetry is about, obscurities. But I like play -- I make jokes constantly-- and I just love rhyme, I love its sound. Rhyming is a nuanced pleasure for me. It's not simply about having to say something, it's about the way it's said, the sound of the language and the way it plays in my head.
In the 1960s you did a book, A Visit With Magritte, where you got to photograph the painter René Magritte, one of your great influences. How did manage that?
Can you imagine walking down the street, coming to a doorbell that says "René Magritte" and you push the button and he answers the door! We had lunch and he let me observe his day. He showed home movies. Every day the maid would ladle out the soup. He was very kind to me, very nice. I was just so thrilled to be there. His studio was like a little anteroom off the bedroom! You see kids in SoHo with paint all over them and this kind of shit, and here's a guy who is a genius -- and I very seldom use that word, but he was a genius -- and he's painting on a little easel in his tiny house!
Magritte was one of those people who freed me, freed my mind and my imagination. So was De Chirico, and Balthus -- the French painter, who I photographed in Switzerland two years ago, just before he died. These people freed my imagination by showing me that I could invent my own world, I didn't have to go looking for one. I became the source -- I didn't have to walk down the street hoping to find a lucky accident. Every subject became available. I could talk about life after death, I could talk about things I can't see. Traditional photographers who want to photograph death will go shoot tombstones or a casket or something. I could stand by a casket all day and never see a spirit leave the body.
For young people in Pittsburgh, there's a quandary about whether it's possible to thrive as a creative person here. How would you address this?
It's not as if you're stuck in any place, like it's a tomb. You have a great deal of freedom, but you've got to realize that it's you. It's you, it's you, you fucker, and if you're not going to use your brain, it's not Pittsburgh, it's you. Everything is right there for you and you're the one who has to sit there and write the first sentence, to have enough courage to paint something. Don't blame anything on your environment; blame it on yourself. You have to free yourself, that's the process, and that's what so many people don't do.
How do we free ourselves?
If you are afraid to fail, forget it, you're never going to be a creative person. You learn more from your failures than you will from your successes. And if you find yourself saying, "I don't have enough time," that's bullshit. You make time for what you want to do. Or, "I don't have enough money." Bullshit. Paper doesn't cost anything. If you find yourself making excuses, then stop jacking yourself off, because that's what it amounts to. If you really want to do something, if you really have a passion to do something, to find your bliss, then you do it. You do it regardless.
In the 1970s you wrote: "We're all afraid of dying. We've already died. Look at your high school graduation picture, he's dead. Look at your wedding picture, she's dead! Just now, you died." Are you afraid of death?
I've come back to death throughout my work in so many ways. I've always been interested in the metaphysical implications of death. What I want before I'm out of here is illumination. I want to stop being Duane and understand the true nature of reality.
I wrote a little thing about death regarding the Pyramids that says, "Dear friend, if you should die before me, I would build you a pyramid. And every stone would be a memory of a moment we shared, and I would think of you. And when you awaken from your dream of death, should you chance to find this pyramid in your travels, remember me and how I loved you long ago." That always chokes me up. That's worth a thousand Cindy Sherman photographs. It's not hip. It's not cool. I'm not hip and cool. But if you can touch one person with one sentence, that's the best. I don't need an audience. I just need one person.