One way or another, Duane Michals tells stories. They are revealed through photographs in the hundreds of exhibitions he’s mounted and in the 30 or so books he’s produced. Get him talking and you’ll learn about the times he watched Bonanza with René Magritte or took pictures of Sting for the cover of Synchronicity or of a seedling growing up through the floor of his abandoned childhood home outside of Pittsburgh.
What else does he like to talk about?
“Ask me,” he says, “‘How does it feel to be Duane Michals?’” So I ask.
“It feels good!” says Michals, who turned 83 in February. “I’ve been able to express everything on my mind and I took a lot of risks. I might be on the cusp of death but I have all of my noodles.” Michals’ use of humor – to disarm, to provoke, to entertain — never takes a break. He says it’s important if you’re serious, which he is, to also be ridiculous. But seriously, he says, he has a “nice history.”
At 15, he took a bus to harvest wheat in Texas, a “disastrous but amazing experience” that convinced him to seek adventure. At 26 he saved $1,000 and borrowed a camera to go to Russia, where he produced photographs that would yield his first exhibition and establish his career.
Storyteller, the retrospective that opens at PEM on March 7, reveals Michal’s inventiveness, his philosophy on life and his hunger over the decades to advance photography into new artistic spaces. He’s best known for his sequences of images, brilliant painting on tintypes and handwritten annotations.
“Everything I did grew out of my frustration with the medium, the silence of the still picture,” he says, so he found the “wiggle room.” With sequences, he could add drama before and after the decisive moment. Having his subjects move created ethereal images and an awareness of time’s passage. Layering negatives challenged preconceptions.
Language, Michals says, has always been associated with photographs. A newspaper caption might tell you that 20 inches of snow fell on Boston or Vladimir Putin arrived by plane at the Olympics. “I write about what cannot be seen,” he says. “My text picks up where the photograph fails. This Photograph is my Proof, a “nice picture” of his cousin and new bride at Michals’ grandmother’s house, is metaphorically “out of focus” until Michals adds the text.
Michals uses a pen nib and ink to enhance his visual stories, writing in cursive or all capitals depending on his mood. “I like the handwriting, the texture.” He also collects original manuscripts. He describes himself as an intimist, a lover of diaries, books (he has three libraries at home in New York City), small pictures and intimacy. “My photographs whisper into the viewers’ eyes rather than shout. They say, ‘Come closer. I’ll tell you a secret.’”
Michals says he’s taken many professional risks, especially when presenting issues born of the gay community like isolation and illegal behavior. “Remember, 20 or 30 years ago, marriage wasn’t even on the table,” he says. (Michals and Fred Gorrée, his partner of nearly 56 years, married in 2011, just days after same-sex marriage was legalized in New York.)
Unlike Robert Mapplethorpe, whom he says is more hardcore, Michals tends toward sentimentality and the legitimacy of the love between people of the same gender. “I’m not a typical gay person any more than I’m a typical person or photographer.”
That disdain for following established paths might explain why Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson are not among his heroes. “My sources for inspiration were anybody who contradicted my mind and opened my imagination,” Michals says, like Lewis Carroll, Magritte, Joseph Cornell and surrealists in general. “Ansel Adams did not open my imagination. He dealt with Yosemite and sunsets. I was interested in metaphysical ideas, what happens when you die.”
Trevor Smith, PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense, says Michals’ need to authentically express himself trumped any interest in being accepted into the mainstream art world. “His work charts fresh territory, creatively mixing philosophical rigor, surreal witticism and childlike playfulness with an unabashed sentimentality and nostalgic longing.“
So far, Michals has seen the Storyteller exhibition twice at the Carnegie Museum of Art and looks forward to its presentation at PEM. It is, he says, a very demanding show. “You have to read and think. If a show is about the seashore, after first 20 pictures about waves, it gets predictable. Adventure comes from going to the unknown.”