Duane Michals

The Last Sentimentalist:
A Q. & A. with

Photographs by DUANE MICHALS

Introduction 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.

Michals was born in 1932, in Pittsburgh. He moved to New York in the mid-nineteen-fifties, and he had his first exhibition in 1963, at the Underground Gallery, in Greenwich Village. A prolific photographer, Michals has published his work in dozens of books, including “Questions Without Answers,” from 2001. “Empty New York,” a series of photographs that he produced at the start of his career, is currently on view at the D.C. Moore Gallery, in Manhattan. This fall, the Carnegie Museum of Art will host a retrospective of his work.

I recently spent a rainy afternoon with Michals at his studio. The space, which is lined with books and printed ephemera, is an inviting spot that occupies the basement of his apartment building, near Gramercy Park. Michals is an energetic eighty-two; he rushed down the stairs to greet me before sitting down to discuss his work.

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?

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.

What is important to you when you’re making a portrait?

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.

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?

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.

You’ve lived in New York for a long time, but in your work you return often to Pittsburgh, where you were raised. What keeps you in the city?

I don’t know how a person could be so nutty about one place, but I’m just crazy about Pittsburgh. I consider it my spiritual home, and New York my real home. I love it here. I once made a short story about this man who has a moment of awakening from his dreams of avarice, greed, and reward. He liberates himself from it all and realizes his real reason for being here in New York, his raison d’être, is expression. To me, that’s the most important thing this city offers.

“Empty New York” strikes me as quite sentimental. Does it feel significant to exhibit the images after all these years?

Yes. I made those images in the sixties, when I first got together with my friend and partner, Fred. They’re very emotional for me.

I have a passion for the city, but, though I love everything about it, I don’t partake in all that it has to offer. In my youth, I wasn’t a typical gay guy; I didn’t go to the clubs. I was an anomaly in that respect.

New York provides so many subtleties. I love the Morgan Library; I have my usual set of restaurants I go to. I love living near Gramercy. I find my intimacy, and I define the city in terms of the intimate moments it offers me.

Much of your work deals with mortality and the great question in life: Why? What compels you to return so often to this subject?

When I was making my book, “Questions Without Answers,” I said to my assistants, “Ask me questions, about life, about anything.” It never happened. Later, after I’d made the work for the book and held an exhibition, a critic said, “Who the hell is Duane Michals to ask these questions?” And my response was, Everybody should ask these questions. Every human being who is alive should ask these questions!

Fred has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and has started saying the most wonderfully strange things. Recently, he said, “I saw you eating a banana. What was the meaning of that?” The other day, he quipped, “I wonder what Marco Polo’s doing,” and, “On holidays, everybody likes lemons.” There are so many of them and they’re so sweet.

We’ve been together for a long time, and I’ve known him over many incarnations. There’s the infatuation Fred, there’s the long-term Fred, and this is the last of the Freds. But of all of the Freds that I’ve known, this is maybe the best one. This is Fred exiting. There’s no subterfuge—he says exactly what he feels. [I] asked Fred, “Why do you think we’re here?” And he replied, “To take care of each other.” I thought that was brilliant. That’s the only meaning! Asked and answered.

You’re in your eighties now and still full of vitality. You’re eager to make art, to publish books, and to try new things. Do your ideas get more focussed as you grow older?

Yes, they do. What poetry is all about is paying attention to subtle details. Great art is paying attention to the things that are lost. When you are young, emotions are much broader; there’s that “anywhere you go, I will go with you” mentality. As you get older, it becomes more like tea that steeps for a long time and gets richer. That’s the sublime quality of life.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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