‘In a way, I’ve always been at war with what the still photograph did,” says Duane Michals from a wicker chair in the basement office of his New York town house. At 81, he has been fighting that war for a long time—since 1958, when he took a borrowed camera to Russia as a tourist and fell in love with photography, bringing back images that began his commercial and fine-art career.
Since then his work has pushed against the confines of the single image. First he used sequences of staged images, and later he added text, writing directly on prints to say in his distinctive wiry hand what the picture alone could not. Michals was interested in telling stories, often about ideas and subjects that had been left out of the photographic conversation of the 1960s and ’70s, when he began receiving widespread recognition.
His work addressed spirituality, religion, sex, beauty, and death in everyday settings. In one well-known sequence, The Spirit Leaves the Body (1968), a double-exposed figure sits up and leaves his supine body; in another, Christ visits New York, a halo dodged around his head.
“As a photographer, I’ve worked against the natural constraints of the medium,” says Michals. “What I dislike about photography is that it just reports the facts. It describes.” His work can be seen as an ongoing attempt to bring more than surface into the photograph.
When he began combining photography and painting, “there was a place between them that nobody’s investigated,” he remembers, “where somebody could bring the two together in an authentic way, not in a sort of forced, clever way, but where there’s integrity.”
…“I find the Cubist period so exciting,” he says. “Suddenly they came up with this way of destroying all the rules. It had nothing to do with perspective; it had nothing to do with chiaroscuro lighting or nothing to do even with subject. It happened full-blown out of Zeus’s forehead—boom. And it threw a long shadow over the rest of the 20th century. It still reverberates.”
The Last Sentimentalist: A Q. & A. with Duane Michals | The New Yorker
Photographs by DUANE MICHALS
Interview by SIOBHAN BOHNACKER
The photographer Duane Michals is perhaps best known for his “fictionettes”: dream-like stagings in which Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, and Andy Warhol have all appeared. These enchanting photo sequences and montages, which are often accompanied by Michals’s handwritten prose, make innovative use of the medium’s ability to suggest what cannot be seen.
SB: You’ve often been recognized for your work with portraits, but the photographs in “Empty New York” have no people in them. How did they come to be?
DM: When I made those pictures, I knew nothing about photography. I found a wonderful book by Eugène Atget. He had photographed empty rooms and empty streets in Paris and I was stunned. So I would get out onto the streets early in the morning and take pictures. I called it my “five-finger exercise.”
All these rooms began to look like stage sets. I saw them as pure theatre. My classic example is the barbershop photo: the jacket hanging, the clock over the chair. I thought, well, this is a mise en scène. The man comes in, he puts on his barber costume, and he does his barber act. I began to see the empty streets or empty shops as theatrical backdrops. “Empty New York” is the beginning of me seeing everything as total theatre.
Once I saw these pictures as stage sets, I felt the need to people them, and that led to my other work. If the barber can play out his act as the barber, why not create scenes of my own? That was a huge turning point for me.
SB: What is important to you when you’re making a portrait?
DM: I have a new concept. I call it the “prose portrait.” A prose portrait doesn’t necessarily show you what someone looks like; it’s not a line-for-line reproduction of a face. A prose portrait tells you what the nature of the person is about. When I photographed Magritte, the portrait was made in the nature of Magritte. When I photographed Warhol, the portrait was in the character, the mystery—if there is one—of Warhol. You can’t capture someone, per se. How could you? The subject probably doesn’t even know who he (or she) is. So, for me, a prose portrait is about a person, rather than of a person.
SB: Writing plays a significant role in your photography. Most of your images are captioned with prose or poetry. Does this serve as an extension of your idea of a prose portrait?
DM: My writing grew out of my frustration with photography. I never believed a photograph is worth a thousand words. If I took a picture of you, it would tell me nothing about your English accent; it would tell me nothing about you as a person. With somebody you know really well, it can be frustrating. Sixty per cent of my work is photography and the rest is writing.