Paul Greenfield MFA, ARPS

Duane Michals (1932)

Duane Michals was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and after taking art classes at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, he attended the University of Denver, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1953. After his military service ended in 1956, Michals moved to New York where he studied at Parsons School of Design and worked as a graphic designer for Dance and Time. A three-week tour of Russia in 1958 with a camera borrowed from a friend marked the beginning of Michals' artistic career, although he still accepted commercial photography assignments. His Russian photographs are portraits, while his images from the mid-1960s catalogue deserted sites in New York. In 1966, Michals started to structure his photographs as multiframe compositions, with subjects enacting set narratives. He began writing captions in the margins of his photographs in 1974, and incorporated painting into his treatment of the printed images in 1979. Books such as Salute, Walt Whitman (1996) veer away from the artist's characteristic interest in issues of mortality and sexual identity, and instead address textual sources for subject matter. Michals received ICP's Infinity Award for Art in 1991.
Meredith Fisher
Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 222.

Duane Michals's narrative pieces rely on the sequencing of multiple images to convey a sense of alienation and disequilibrium. In his world, the literal appearance of things is less important than the communication of a concept or story. In his portraiture, however, Michals relies wholly on his subjects' appearance and self-chosen poses to establish their identity; asserting that "we see what we want to see" and that photography is incapable of revealing a person's private nature, he eschews his usual interest in Surrealism, dreams, and nightmares in favor of a more direct approach.
Michals's interest in art "began at age 14 while attending watercolor university classes at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh." In 1953, he received a B.A. from the University of Denver. In 1956, after two years in the Army, he went on to study at the Parsons School of Design with a plan to become a graphic designer; however, he did not complete his studies.

He describes his photographic skills as "completely self-taught." In 1958, while on a holiday in the USSR he discovered an interest in photography. The photographs he made during this trip became his first exhibition held in 1963 at the Underground Gallery in New York City.

For a number of years, Michals was a commercial photographer, working for Esquire and Mademoiselle, and he covered the filming of The Great Gatsby for Vogue (1974). He did not have a studio. Instead, he took portraits of people in their environment, which was a contrast to the method of other photographers at the time, such as Avedon and Irving Penn.

Michals was hired by the government of Mexico to photograph the 1968 Summer Olympics. In 1970, his works were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The portraits he took between 1958 and 1988 would later become the basis of his book, Album.

In 1976, Michals received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Michals also produced the art for the album Synchronicity (by The Police) in 1983, and Richard Barone's Clouds Over Eden album in 1993.

Artistic influences and impact

Though he has not been involved in gay civil rights, his photography has addressed gay themes. In discussing his notion of the artist's relationship to politics and power however, Michals feels ultimately that aspirations are useless:

I feel the political aspirations are impotent. They can never be seen. If they are, it will only be by a limited audience. If one is to act politically, one simply puts down the camera and goes out and does something. I think of someone like Heartfield who ridiculed the Nazis. Who very creatively took great stands. He could have been killed at any moment, he was Jewish, and my God what the guy did. It was extraordinary. You don't see that now.

Michals cites Balthus, William Blake, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Eakins, René Magritte, and Walt Whitman as influences on his art. In turn, he has influenced photographers such as David Levinthal and Francesca Woodman.

He is noted for two innovations in artistic photography developed in the 1960s and 1970s. First, he "[told] a story through a series of photos" as in his 1970 book Sequences. Second, he handwrote text near his photographs, thereby giving information that the image itself could not convey.

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