ART : Picture Imperfect : For maverick Duane Michals, a photo is worth far less than a thousand words when the questions are about the very meaning of truth

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Duane Michals doesn’t think much of Postmodern photography. Musing on this art-world “ism,” along with just about every other topic under the sun, the artist reels off the roll call of the current crop of photo stars and dismisses them all with a wave of the hand.

“For me art is about passion, and I don’t see any passion in most of the work being done today,” says Michals, who has an exhibition of new photographs on view at the Fahey Klein Gallery through April 17. “It’s too intellectual and cerebral--I mean, I read the things written about this stuff and all I can say is ‘so what?’ I don’t have time for that nonsense.”

Michals may not like the emotionally detached stance of many of today’s artists who use photography in their work, but he agrees with them on one crucial point--like them, he believes the photographic image is essentially a lie.


“The question of truth is forever in the air, and people look for it with particular fervor in art,” the 61-year-old artist observes during a conversation in his Manhattan apartment. “Photography does deal with ‘truth’ or a kind of superficial reality better than any of the other arts, but it never questions the nature of reality--it simply reproduces reality. And what good is that when the things of real value in life are invisible?

“There’s a great presumptuousness in the way photographers present life, which is something most of us know next to nothing about,” he adds, speaking with an earnest intensity that colors everything he says. “We don’t know anything about what anybody else feels. Even in the deepest love relationship--when lovers say ‘I love you’ to each other--we don’t really know what we’re saying, because language isn’t equal to the complexity of human emotions.”

In attempting to shed some light on the most deeply hidden aspects of human experience, Michals has gone to great lengths to circumvent the limitations of language and the camera, and he has been praised and lambasted for the unorthodox style he has developed in that pursuit.

He first violated the rules governing “pure” photography in 1966 when he began staging abbreviated morality plays exploring themes of death, sexual identity and loneliness, which he photographed in sequential images ranging from five to 15 in number. These early works were first shown two years later at the Underground Gallery in New York and the Art Institute in Chicago.

Eight years later Michals began elaborating on the scenes depicted in his images by inscribing text in a crude scribble directly onto his prints. In a 1975 group portrait of his family titled “A Letter From My Father,” for instance, the accompanying text explains that Michals’ father had promised to send him a “special letter” whose contents were never divulged. “I know what I hoped would be in the letter,” the text continues. “I wanted him to tell me where he had hidden his affections. But then he died, and the letter never did arrive. And I never found that place where he had hidden his love.”

At the time Michals first began adding text to his images this stylistic innovation was tantamount to sacrilege, as photography was deep in the throes of the ideology promoted by the then-director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, who espoused a style that was essentially an extension of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the “decisive moment.”


Like Cartier-Bresson, Szarkowski was vehemently opposed to any sort of darkroom revision and believed that a good photograph was one that was shot at precisely the right moment so that it resonated with profound meaning beyond the action shown in the image. In direct opposition to that idea, Michals believes that an image functions as little more than a vague clue as to the complexity of human experience, and that a picture in fact tells us precious little.

“John Szarkowski was a real drag on photography because he was very conservative, and his idea of high-art photography was reportage of the sort Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand did--anything else, according to him, was not photography,” Michals says.

“I didn’t come to photography until I was 28 and never went to photography school so I had no knowledge of any of that--if I had I never would have attempted to be a photographer, because the odds against being successful in those terms are huge. I was completely self-taught and learned everything on the job, and that was a blessing because it allowed me to find my own way creatively.”

The road Michals traveled toward becoming an artist was a fortuitous one that found him working for such slick New York publications as Vogue, Esquire and the New York Times just two years after he discovered his talent for photography during a three-week visit to Russia in 1958. Using a borrowed camera, he took pictures of people on the streets, and these works launched his career as a portrait photographer and also led him into the world of commercial photography. Unlike many fine-art photographers who turn their backs on commercial work as soon as it is financially feasible, Michals has always maintained parallel careers, making one body of work for books and gallery walls and another for the pages of magazines.

“I’m not a photo snob and I do lots of commercial work, but I’m probably the least commercial photographer there is doing magazine work,” Michals says. “I do lots of things you wouldn’t dream I’d done and that aren’t remotely related to my private work.”

Private is an appropriate word for Michal’s fine-art photography, which uses surreal optical effects to explore the invisible realm of metaphysical and emotional experience. Michals describes himself as “a professional photographer and dilettante mystic” whose immodest goal is to photograph the unphotographable, and he employs every trick in the book--blurs, double exposures, negative sandwiches--toward that end.

A series from the late 1960s, for instance, depicts a young girl in the throes of an erotic dream in which a phantom lover visits her and robs her of her innocence while she sleeps. Through technical sleight of hand, Michals manages to make the girl’s dream lover look like a phantom.

In a work from 1970, “The Human Condition,” a young man gradually transforms into a sphere of pure light, which in turn becomes a galaxy in a starry sky. A book from 1971, “The Journey of the Spirit After Death,” was based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and explored ideas of resurrection and reincarnation in eerie images of disembodied spirits interacting with the living.

Michals’ introduction of text into his work in 1974 came at a time when his art was growing increasingly autobiographical. The 1978 book “Homage to Cavafy,” for instance, was inspired by the writing of homosexual poet Constantine Cavafy, and homosexual love was for several years a central theme for Michals, who is gay. Sexual love and questions surrounding death are subjects Michals says he will never tire of, because “these issues resist any kind of resolution.”

Duane Michals, born in McKeesport, Pa., where his father was employed as a steelworker, was the eldest in a Catholic family of two boys and was named after the scion of the wealthy family for whom his mother worked as a maid. Michals’ interest in both art and metaphysics began at an early age, and at 14 he won a scholarship to study painting at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute. It was during his early teen-age years that he also began breaking away from his Catholic upbringing.

“Spirituality is the most important thing in life because the mind is the basis of everything,” says Michals, explaining that relinquishing the idea of a “personal god” was the most difficult aspect of his own spiritual evolution. “As a child I bought the Catholic package and I used to mea culpa myself to death, but then I began asking questions, and the Catholic answers I got were very unsatisfying. So I began to look elsewhere for the things I wanted to know, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that like all major religions, Catholicism is a political institution that has little to do with spirituality. People mumble prayers and do their confessions and communion by the numbers--it’s cosmetic spirituality.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in art education from the University of Denver in 1953, Michals was inducted into the Army, where he spent three years. “That was the hardest period of my life,” he recalls, “because I was completely ill-equipped to be a soldier and I hated every minute of it.”

On his release in 1956 he moved to New York City, where he spent a year taking courses at Parsons School of Design, then landed a job as assistant art director of Dance magazine. Two years later he took his first photographs during his three-week visit to Russia, and on returning to New York he decided to try to turn his newly discovered avocation into a career. A short time later a job shooting publicity stills for the Broadway musical “The Fantasticks” opened the doors to the worlds of magazine and advertising photography, and before long he had more work than he could handle. Michals’ calling card at the time was his portrait photography, a creative arena that continues to interest him but ultimately proved inadequate to his needs as an artist.

“I still find doing portraits a terrific challenge, but even though I’ve done hundreds of them, I’ve never stopped questioning the very nature of portraiture because it deals exclusively with appearances. I’ve never believed people are what they look like and think it’s impossible to really know what people are,” says Michals, who has shot everyone from filmmakers Pier Passolini and Roman Polanski to artists Rene Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico and Joseph Cornell.

Of photographing Magritte, who was a big hero of Michals’ and a major influence on his work, Michals recalls: “It was one of the loveliest experiences of my life. I spent a week with him and was totally thrilled and intimidated by him, even though he was extremely generous with me.” Of the legendary recluse Joseph Cornell, Michals says: “Photographing Cornell was wonderful--he was just such a dip. He loved Hollywood chick-lets like Yvette Mimieux and he showed me all his pictures he’d cut out of fan magazines. Like Warhol, Cornell was a naive man who was also very street smart.”

Michals had many such memorable encounters as a portrait photographer, but by the mid-’60s he was ready to move on creatively.

“My work has gone through a very logical evolution,” says the artist, who tired of shooting portraits because “people wouldn’t show up. I spent a lot of time waiting in empty rooms, and that led me to do a series I called ‘Empty New York,’ which was loosely inspired by the work of Atget. After a while I realized that these empty interiors looked like stage sets, so I began to set up little scenes in my mind--I was looking at the work of Balthus a lot at the time, so his sensibility came to bear on this period of my work. After doing a few of these photo-sequence plays I realized the pictures needed text.

“Photography frustrated me so much that it forced me to resort to other means, and that’s why I began writing on my prints. If I see a photograph of a woman crying I want to know why she’s crying, and language allows you to be more specific. You could stare at a picture of my father for days and still not know the first thing about the man or my relationship with him, so I write to fill in where the image fails. The writing isn’t a caption either--a caption tells you what you’re looking at, and as I said, I’m not interested in appearances. I’m really writing for myself rather than for an audience--I’m writing because I need to say what I feel out loud.

“It’s in my nature to be a storyteller and I read constantly--I love poetry more than just about anything,” says Michals, who mentions Lewis Carroll and William Blake, along with painters Thomas Eakins and Balthus, as major influences on his work. “Walt Whitman is my favorite poet--to me he’s just a mind-blower. He was interested in so many levels of consciousness and sexuality, and even today he’s still revolutionary. The first book I ever bought was ‘Leaves of Grass,’ and it still knocks me out.”

Michals was roundly criticized when he first began combining text with his images, and photo purists continue to find the work problematic. Though the artist has been the subject of numerous major museum shows, including a 1990 touring retrospective organized by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and exhibits his work in galleries around the world, he is still something of an art world outsider--a situation that suits him fine.

“The art world is completely fascistic. I loathe it, and the more I see of it the more tacky it seems,” he says. “My work has never been considered hip, because my sensibility is much too romantic and romanticism has been totally out of fashion for ages. It would be easy for me to make politically correct work--documentary photographs of rural schoolteachers in Alabama would probably be well-received--but it’s much risker to try to do something truly intimate, and when I talk about my relationship with my father in my work, it’s not bull----.”

“I have a new book coming out called ‘Arrows of Thanatos’ that includes a picture called ‘Father Prepares His Son for Burial.’ I was looking at that picture the other day, and I said to myself, ‘My god, are you still beating that dead horse?’ Then I realized if I ever did resolve these issues--of death, sexuality, the father-son relationship--I’d be out of a career because that’s my subject matter. I have no interest in taking pictures of trees or people walking down the street.”

Michals’ subjects haven’t changed much over the past 25 years, but technically his work continues to evolve. Several pieces on view at Fahey-Klein relate to a children’s book he is working on, while others seem modeled after silent movies and fairy tales. As to where he’s headed next, the artist says he is developing a form of collage wherein he will shoot a portrait, then paint images onto the photograph that relate to the person depicted. Michals began painting on his prints a few years ago, much to the dismay of many critics. “That work has gotten terrible reviews,” he says with a laugh. “Critics say that I can’t paint, but in fact, I draw relatively well.”

Though Michals is generally acknowledged as a seminal figure who played an important role in the evolution of both photography and conceptual art, he does get his fair share of negative reviews. That this doesn’t seem to faze him in the least may be due to the fact that he has never been remotely interested in scaling the art world mountain. Rather, his work is simply a tool he uses in his attempt to make sense of his experience as a human being.

“I’m 61 years old, and I come from a family where people kick the bucket in their mid-80s, so that gives me about 25 more years, and I really want to know what the hell this thing called life is,” he says. “The only thing I know for sure is that everything you learn is a point of departure, and that all knowledge launches you into a spiral that ultimately brings you to the point of not knowing. These are the sorts of questions I’m attempting to explore in my work, but believe me, the answers resist being nailed down on paper. I’m shooting for Andromeda and landing on the moon. Sometimes I get as far as 14th Street, and sometimes I get to go around the world.”