Asking the Hard Questions
Through his photography Duane Michals explores the great themes and problematics of human life
by Lester Strong
When I was first introduced a few months ago to renowned photographer Duane Michals during the opening of an exhibition of his work at the New York City gallery that represents him and he was told I would be interviewing him for an article, he voiced one request: “Please, ask me the hard questions.”
For anyone familiar with Michals’ photography, that was an open invitation to explore with him a career spanning over fifty years during which through his art he himself has asked any number of the hard questions we all face in our lives—among which are certainly the questions raised by AIDS.
As Michals’ book Questions Without Answers indicates, hard questions are considered hard precisely because their answers are none too easy to pin down. What is life? Death? Desire? Love? Grief? Answers can vary from situation to situation and person to person, and even over time for each individual. In Michals’ work, the great themes—which are also the great problematics—of human life are explored in their many guises and permutations. But the answers? “There are a lot of subjects I’ve dealt with in depth in my photography,” he said during the interview. “I keep coming back to them and back to them because, well, they’re not the kind of subjects you can ever resolve.”
Aside from asking hard questions, Michals is known as a great innovator in modern photography. Born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, in 1932, his first artistic love was watercolor, which he studied at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh at age fourteen. In 1953, he graduated with a B.A. from the University of Denver, and after a two-year stint in the army studied at Parsons School of Design in New York City with plans to become a graphic designer. Then his life changed course in 1958 with a visit to the Soviet Union, where he discovered his interest in photography.
“I was working at Time Inc., doing promotion for Sports Illustrated and other Time Inc. magazines, and I found out you could go to Russia,” he explained in the interview. “The tour was run by Intourist, the official Soviet state travel agency, and cost $1,000. At the time I was making $100 per week, so over the course of six months I saved $500 by eating nothing but sandwiches, which was half the cost. I borrowed $500 from my parents, and an Argus C3 camera from a friend. The trip was amazing. I visited cities like Leningrad in Russia and Minsk in Belarus, and saw only five other American tourists during the three weeks I was there. It was the height of the Cold War, and America and the USSR weren’t even speaking to each other. But the guides let me wander by myself, and no one stopped me from taking pictures. I came back with photos of all kinds of Soviet citizens, along with a love of photography that has never left me.”
What Michals wanted to do with photography morphed over time. By the early 1960s, he was working as a commercial photographer and had started doing celebrity portraits. But he still wasn’t satisfied. “Photographers are usually defined as people who walk around with a camera taking pictures of what life presents to them,” he said during the interview. “I’m the opposite. My photography is essentially about ideas, not about visual observation. It’s about questioning the nature of my life experience, not just recording it as it happens.”
To this end, Michals decided to invent the scenarios he wanted to photograph. And since single images are often not enough to fully explore an emotion, an idea, an experience, he began to sequence photos into a narrative. And since even that was often not enough to contain the full scope of what he wanted to say, he began to handwrite text as part of his images—text that is not didactic or outright explanatory, but instead suggestive in a poetic way, intended to rouse the emotions and imagination rather than hammer home a message.
Neither his invention of scenarios—which went against the then accepted photojournalistic paradigm for photography—nor his narrative sequencing and handwritten additions to his photos were accepted by the photographic establishment when he introduced them in the 1960s and 1970s. But over the decades, they have been widely adopted by other photographers and are today seen as the introduction of a paradigm shift in what is considered photography as art.
According to Michals, death is the main theme of his work. Asked why a topic many people try to avoid thinking about intrigues him so much, he replied: “It’s the most fundamental question you can ask. A question without an answer: What is death? When I was in high school I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. I wasn’t focused on death at the time, but it occurred to me that there’s no exit from life but death. Death casts a long shadow over most people’s lives, whether we know it or not.”
In terms of books, the subject of death entered the Michals canon fairly early in his career with the 1971 publication of The Journey of the Spirit after Death, which according to Michals was based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But it has made its presence felt in other contexts as well, and specifically in the context of AIDS.
Michals has been openly gay in his profession since at least the 1970s. Asked how AIDS has affected his life and work personally, he answered: “As far as living my life goes, not much. By the 1970s and 1980s, my partner Fred and I were long established as a couple—we’ve been together fifty-seven years now—and on the periphery of gay life as it was lived in those days. Certainly not in the fast lane. I’m not saying AIDS wasn’t a disaster. I’m just saying we weren’t at the center of the disaster. A few of our friends died of the disease. But we knew people who knew sixty people who died of the disease.”
However, Michals did respond to the crisis in his photographic work. In an article titled “Dealing with AIDS is shaping the spirit of the art community” published in the Sunday, June 28, 1987, issue of The Palm Beach Post, Michals is quoted as saying, “I’m disappointed, given the number of people in the art world who are gay…that more are not addressing the subject—not politically, but in an emotional, aesthetic way.” The author of the article, Jeremy Girard, goes on to point out that Michals had exhibited two pieces: The Dream of Flowers (1986), a sequence of four photographs showing a man’s head resting on a glass table and gradually sinking into a mass of flowers, which refers to friends and acquaintances of Michals who died of the disease; and All Things Mellow in the Mind (1986), which Girard quotes Michals as saying is “about living as intensely as possible in the moment, realizing that everything is transient and will go away.” (It should also be noted that The Dream of Flowers appeared in a 1994 show titled “From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS” at the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center of New York University in New York City.)
Another instance: In an essay titled “Wounded by Beauty,” published in Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals (2014), photographer Allan Ellenzweig wrote, “In the mid-1980s, perhaps responding unconsciously to the depredations wrought by the AIDS pandemic [among gay men]…Michals produced several works in which the evanescence of youthful male beauty and the need for amorous desire and intimate connection take center stage.” He cited two works: the first, an image titled The Camera’s Caress (1986), which is accompanied by Michals’ hand-written text reading, in part, “Something happened when I took your picture.…I took the photograph over and over, again and again, compulsively, knowing that when I stopped…the moment would be lost, as the dream dies when one awakens. And I could not bear to let it go.” The second: a thirteen-photo sequence titled The Bewitched Bee (1986), which Ellenzweig described as a “gentle narrative [that] may be read as an AIDS metaphor with its intimation of an isolating physical transformation produced by the sting of the bee’s kiss planted on a blond youth’s lip” as the young man grows antlers and is exiled to a lonely forest existence where he eventually drowns in “a sea of leaves.”
And still another instance: Michals’ image The Father Prepares His Dead Son for Burial (1991), included in “Art AIDS America,” an exhibition currently touring the country.
Michals may consider death to be the main theme of his work. But as the images already mentioned make clear, his work can at the same time also explore love, desire, grief, myth, regret, sensuality, beauty, and various kinds of relationships. Not just male beauty and sensuality or male-male relationships, either. He may be gay, but that has not stopped him from exploring aspects of female beauty and sensuality, as well as female-male relationships. In his 2014 book ABCDuane: A Duane Michals Primer, for example, a photo like In the season of their passion, Reason surrendered to desire (2006) reveals a stunning foray by Michals into the domain of heterosexual sensuality—and in color, at that, when he’s known mostly for images shot in black and white.
Michals and his partner Fred may have passed through the worst of the early AIDS disaster relatively unscathed. But more recently they ran into their own health crisis when Fred was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “Fred was a huge gift in my life,” said Michals near the end of the interview. “We shared stuff. We had problems. We dealt with problems. We ended up being a ‘we.’ I love him now more than ever. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, but my whole life these days is completely devoted to him. Some day one of us is going to go back to being just a ‘me,’ and when that happens….”
As Michals indicated during the interview, there are no easy answers to the hard questions and problematics life presents to everyone. However, through his art he offers to anyone who views it a rich portrait of what it means to be human. Michals described his partner Fred as “a huge gift” in his life. Michals’ photography, it’s fair to say, is a huge gift to all our lives.
For more information about DC Moore Gallery, log on to: www.dcmooregallery.com.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.