May 10, 2010

Duane Michals, photographer

After the American Century

I was pleased to make some opening remarks at a retrospective exhibition of Duane Michals' photographs in 2010.  His works are in the permanent collections of the great museums of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, Harvard and Princeton. He has been the subject of exhibits in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, and on and on, worldwide. This was the first exhibition of his work in Denmark for 16 years. My remarks follow.

Duane Michals was born in 1932 in McKeesport, a Pennsylvania steel town on the Monongahela River.  His father was a steel worker, and growing up just twelve miles away from Pittsburgh, he was in the midst of American heavy industry. I grew up myself less than 100 miles from there, and heard some of the same radio stations and likely the same commercials for Iron City beer – the sponsor for Pittsburgh Pirate baseball games.  This was a dynamic sometimes turbulent world of coal mining, foundries, unions, strikes, solidarity, and accidents. As Michals writes at the bottom of one of his images, as a child he thought all rivers were yellow and that the night sky ought to look orange. He first saw the black night sky in Indiana, when visiting relatives, and felt sorry for them.

It might seem that the logical, even the inevitable, choice for a photographer who grew up in such an environment, would be to become a realist photographer, and to work in the tradition of Lewis Hine, who made many images in the Pittsburgh area. Alternately, he might have been inspired by the later documentary tradition and the work of the great Depression Era photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Russell Lee. But Duane Michals is not part of this tradition. He did not choose photography in order to use it as a mirror.

After high school, Michals attended the University of Denver, where he studied the arts. Denver in the 1950s was still something of a cow town, with enormous feedlots and slaughterhouses. And looming right behind the city are the Rocky Mountains. A few hours away were national parks and magnificent scenery.  This environment implied another possible photographic career. Michals might have become a landscape photographer in the tradition of Carleton Watkins and Ansell Adams. Indeed, Adams was one of the most successful photographers of that era. But Duane Michals is definitely not part of that tradition either.

Rather, while in Denver he was studying painting, not photography. He had not picked up a camera yet. His first jobs were in the commercial world of New York magazine publishing, where he worked as a designer for several different employers, including Time Magazine. He still had not become a photographer, but he had already trained his eye. He knew about framing, lighting, and contrast, and he had seen a good deal of fine art, not just in books but also in museums and galleries.

More important that this visual education, Duane Michals had developed a particular sensibility that would inform his photography. While still back in McKeesport, at age 17, he had run across the poetry of Walt Whitman. This he immediately saw, was not at all like the poetry assigned in high school. Whitman broke all the rules for classical poetry, and like Michals in photography, Whitman was self-taught as a writer. Whitman also had a strongly visual imagination, and many of his poems are almost like a series of snapshots – sometimes called catalogues – that juxtapose a series of strongly felt scenes.

Similarly, Michals became famous for creating photographic series, juxtaposing images. Sometimes they are a narrative sequence, other times the connections between the images are more philosophical.

However, I do not see these sequences as the most important connection between Whitman and Michals. Rather, it is thematic. Whitman is a transcendentalist poet, who was himself inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman is a strongly affirmative poet, even when writing about death. He, like Michals, was not content with the surfaces, but pushed to understand people and their situations in full. Whitman was not the poetic equivalent of a documentary photographer or a landscape photographer. Whitman managed to combine a strong social interest in the world around him with an intense interest in dreams, in altered states of consciousness, and in mystical experiences.

Duane Michals has made many photographic tributes to Whitman, incorporating his very texts inside some of his images.  
Whitman is at once one of the most American and most universal of authors. As we open his exhibition here today in Denmark, surely we can say the same of Duane Michals. He is one of the most American and yet also one of the most universal photographers.  We are fortunate that he did not become a documentary photographer focused on the declining steel industry of Pittsburgh, that he did not choose to imitate the landscape photographers of the American West. Both are worthy traditions, but surely it was much better that he instead took inspiration from Whitman and became a major photographic innovator. 

Whitman once wrote of his poems

This is no book
Who touches this, touches a man.
(Is it night? Are you alone?)
It is I you hold, and who holds you.
I spring from the pages into your arms….

Duane Michals wrote something similar: “It is no accident that you are reading this. This moment has been waiting for you. I have been waiting for you.” On another occasion, he said, “When you look at my photographs you are looking into my mind.”   Go see the exhibition, and look into these photographs. To paraphrase Whitman, who sees them, sees a man.

The exhibition was at Odense's Photographic Museum (Brandts) until August 15, 2010.