“Anything outside of the realm of being an observer to reality was the only definition [of photography] that was legitimate. I had no problem breaking the rules because I never bought the rules in the first place.” -Duane Michals

Storytelling with stills

Duane Michals is one of the few photographers to pioneer a completely new style of work. His sequential photographs are more stories than photographs of everyday people. Michals imagined a story then he staged and photographed it. He considered himself a director working in stills. He thought deeply about his work. Many of those thoughts are captions hand written in the margins of his prints.

Joel Smith, curator of photography at the Morgan Library and Museum says of Michals, “Duane cut photography’s umbilical cord. He saw there’s no reason to limit the camera to what you find in the world; it should be part of the history of expressing ideas.”

By 1970, Michals had cemented his reputation with a one man show at the Museum of Modern Art.

Beginnings of a photographic artist

Michals earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Denver after spending two years in the army. He went to New York and studied design at the Parsons School of Design 1956 but did not finish the program. Michals taught himself to be a photographer after discovering his interest in the art during a 1958 trip to the U.S.S.R. The images he took on that visit formed is first exhibition at the Underground Gallery in New York in 1963.

Michals was influenced by writers and artists like Lewis Carroll (“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”), the poet, printmaker and painter William Blake and surrealist painter René Magritte.

Duane Michals, magazine photographer

His commercial work took a different turn from photographers of the time. He did not have a studio, preferring to make portraits of people in their environments. His work appeared in Mademoiselle and Esquire. He shot stills of the making of “The Great Gatsby” movie for Vogue in 1974.

René Magritte & Duane Michals

On Photography: Duane Michals, 1932-present
Duane Michals photo: Mark Elzey for the N.Y. Times

Michals visited Magritte and his wife Georgette in Brussels, Belgium where he photographed them.

“If I indulge myself and surrender to memory, I can still feel the knot of excitement that gripped me as I turned the corner into Rue Mimosas, looking for the house of Rene Magritte.”

Michaels recalls, “It was August, 1965. I was 33 years old and about to meet the man whose profound and witty surrealist paintings had contradicted my assumptions about photography.”

The visit resulted in the book “A Visit with Magritte.” A photo of Magritte at his easel (opening photo, bottom row, second from left) portrays the painter as art himself double exposed onto the canvas. Magritte is reflected in a mirror in the top left corner of the composition.

In 1968, Michaels made the photograph titled “The Illuminated Man” (opening photo, top left).

“I only discovered the painting later. I was very proud to have had a similar idea to one of my deities,” he said, after discovering Magritte’s 1937 “The Pleasure Principle,” a portrait of the poet Edward James.

On Photography: Duane Michals, 1932-present
“The Pleasure Principle” painting by René Magritte, 1937

“The Human Condition,” 1969

Michals says, “The nature of consciousness is always the central question.” The series below was made in the 14th Street subway station in New York City.

Philip Gefter writes in the New York Times about the “The Human Condition”:

“[It] begins with a man standing on the 14th Street subway platform; the train arrives and he is bathed in a halo of light; the light becomes a swirl and in the last frame he is swept into a white disc the size of a galaxy passing through the night sky. From the immediate to the universal in six frames.”

On Photography: Duane Michals, 1932-present
The Human Condition series by Duane Michals

Duane Michals most recent exhibit was at the Morgan Library and Museum where he spent two years reviewing their collection. He chose paintings, drawings and artifacts to compliment his own photographs. This video gives a comprehensive view of the show.

Michals sums his work up this way, “Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.”

Sources: Widewalls, The New York Times and the International Center of Photography.

More stories of inspirational photographer can be read in On Photography.