Insight: The Wit and Wisdom of Duane Michals

Duane Michals recently sat down at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York to talk about his photography and his career, and it was, as expected, both an entertaining and rewarding event. Michals, who is now 81, has published more than 20 books and had numerous museum and gallery exhibitions, including retrospectives at MoMA (1970) and ICP (2005), and his work will be the subject of another major retrospective next year at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg, his hometown. His use of sequential images and text written on images has expanded the possibilities of photography, and his smart humor has endeared him to those who’ve heard him speak. At the Leslie-Lohman Museum, it was clear that he has lost none of wit or wisdom. 

I first spoke with Duane back in the 1980s—I included a selection of his photographs in the first museum show I ever curated, in 1989. I remember driving him from Albuquerque to Santa Fe; we talked a lot about the importance of the text on his images, and about his writings. Finally, I asked him why he even made photographs, since it seemed as if the text was almost more important than the image making. I’ll never forget his reply: “Because photography is the medium of our times.” 

Michals began his talk at the Leslie-Lohman Museum by declaring, “Anyone can take a sexy picture. We all know what someone’s ass looks like. I was always trying to get behind the sexy picture, to talk about ‘Why.’” This seemed like an extension of a comment he once made in Le Monde: “Photographers look at things but rarely do they question what they see.” 

Some of his subsequent utterances at the museum: 

* “Desire isn't what you see, but what you hope to see.” 

* “I frequently like to talk about the father-son relationship in my photographs, which I believe is profound. I always wanted an older man to say, ‘You did a good job.’” 

* “You can never let people define you. If you let people define you, you become what they want you to be. Then you're not free. You've allowed yourself to become something else.” 

* “I always go beyond my fears; I don't let my fears inhibit me. Fear is the one thing that stops us from being alive. But eventually I face my fears.” 

* “We're all fake facades. You have to get behind the facades and look for surprises.” 

* “I've learned to pay attention to my imagination and amaze myself.” 

* “I love when you read or hear a great thought. I was listening to Cate Blanchett talk about acting the other day, and she said, ‘You have to keep some of the synapses open; it’s in that space, that’s where the imagination is.’ It’s like she’s talking about imagination as this electrical charge that jumps over or between the synapses in our brains.” 

* “I kept taking pictures long after I had my photograph. I knew I had it, but I also knew when it ended, the moment would be over.” 

* “If you become enchanted, that's what life is about —to be enchanted with someone or something.” 

* “I love the word elegance. Elegance always means less. Restraint.” 

* “Poets are flawed people. They're the most interesting.” 

* “Celebrities are the last refuge of the scoundrel.” 

* “When you love someone, to do the slightest thing for them is a great pleasure.” 

* “I’m interested in the exact ephemeral second when you're perfect, and then no more.” 

* “Old age is a shadow across the road of life.” 

* “Portraits are lies.” 

* “I hated the stillness of photography. I had to write the truth.” 

* “You are either defined by the medium or you define the medium.” 

* “Everything I do suits me. Everything else is noise.” 

* “When was the last time you could say ‘THAT WAS WONDERFUL!’” 

I can say it right now: An evening listening to Duane Michals is wonderful.


Pro Photo Daily, September 2013