Robert Farber: I'm here in Florida with a great photographer Duane Michaels. I've first started ???? actually in Vogue magazine. And with those commercial-grade editorials, his work to me always had a fine art edge to it. Then I started following it more and more and I've seen his work over the years. And Duane is one of the few photographers that make his living both in commercial as well as...should I say fine art or...Duane?
Duane Michals: The finest art.
Robert Farber: The finest art photographer you've ever seen. His work is quite interesting. There's something to it that tells a story, whether it's a fantasy or an illusion--there's just some quality to it, I don't know if it's humorous, serious--but it goes all over the place and I find it very entertaining. So not only his books but his exhibitions really are very enthralling and I appreciate his work, and I'm really happy that you're here doing this interview with me.
Duane Michals: I am too.
Robert Farber: When did you first start your career?
Duane Michals: I was a very late bloomer. I became a photographer when I was 28. I first went to Russia when I was 26, but I was never an amateur. I didn't have a camera, I borrowed a camera. I'd taken one small photography course that I'd forgotten--it was forgettable. And going to Russia really changed my life because as a result of those photographs I became a photographer.
Robert Farber: Your first type of photography that you first got involved in was--was it more commercial or was it showing your work in more of a non-commercial vain?
Duane Michals: In those days there was no non-commercial vain, there was only commercial. We're talking about 1960. There were no galleries, the underground hadn't opened up yet. And I worked as a commercial photographer doing portraits for magazines, freelance.
Robert Farber: How were you first discovered? Did you assist at first, how did you get your first assignments?
Duane Michals: I never assisted, I always an amateur. As a matter of fact, I worked for almost twenty years before I finally used an assistant myself. I knew nothing about photography, which was my saving grace. I didn't come up through the ranks, I simply wanted to go out and do portraits. I figured I was making 105 dollars a week at Time, Inc. doing promotion material in the graphics department. I figured if I could make 105 dollars a week doing portraits wouldn't that be great, and that's exactly what I did.
Robert Farber: Where do you feel your first real break came from?
Duane Michals: There was no real break. I got work immediately. If I had to wait six months to get a job I never would have been able to do it. But I got work right away. I think probably my first real break in terms of being seen seriously was when I had a one man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970 of Sequences.
Robert Farber: And that's way ahead of it's time for photography, especially in a museum...
Duane Michals: At that point--you have to think photography history--when I came on the scene in the 60s, you could be Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, Cartier Bresson But the kind of thing I was interested in was without precedent, if you want to count Mulbridge. And the things that interested me were not visible. I didn't want to photograph a corpse, but what interested me was what happened when you die. And so I did a sequence called The Spirit Leaves the Body, which shows somebody getting up and walking away from their body. I was never a street photographer in the sense of looking for something to take a picture of. I would simply sit and find those things in my head which I found scary or interesting or whatever.
Robert Farber: So with these series of images, and the sequences, the way you do the images, I notice some of them have a sense of humor, some are more serious. Is there a preference or a way that you work--did you evolve into more of a sense of humor--because you're a funny guy in person? And it comes through in some of your work. Then I look at it and I say, "You know what, this is serious."
Duane Michals: It's neither yin or yang, it's all the whole. It's the whole package. Sometimes I sell for credit, sometimes I sell for cash. What I do, whatever I find funny--let me put it this way--I'm totally free. I can talk about or photograph anything I'm interested in and I like good jokes. I think to be very serious, you have to be very foolish, so it's keeping that balance of foolish and serious simutaneously.
Robert Farber: I also love the way you caption your images, the way you write about it. Are these thoughts that you write, are they made up or are they really happening to these people in their lives? Is it really the traumas that they've gone through? Some of them seem realistic and some of them I just don't know....
Duane Michals: Well it's all fiction. The people are really actors, and it's all out of my imagination. I believe in imagination, I love wit, surprise...I like to deal with issues that aren't visible, essentially. I'm much more interested in what something feels like rather than what it looks like. So if I see a woman crying, or I photograph Magritte asleep--I'd much rather photograph Magritte's dreams. I'd much rather see a woman crying, I really want to know what's the nature of her grief. What's making her cry, what does it feel like to cry? So photographing tears doesn't do it for me.
Robert Farber: How much of the work or the models that you use in your work are actors? And you've also photographed some well-known people--personalities.
Duane Michals: Well those are mostly assignments of celebrities--I'm not a celebrity monger. What I do, is find people I like, and they're not professionally actors but I have to direct them. They don't know what I want, so I have to make them perform.
Robert Farber: And the type of portraiture that you do, is more story telling. It's not really the face, but the whole body, the environment I've noticed...
Duane Michals: I've always had a trouble with portraiture because I believe people aren't what they appear to be, so when somebody says "Oh! you really captured somebody" that's filled with nonsense--you can't capture anybody. People perform in front of cameras, especially if they're celebrities. They do their celebrity schtick for you. But the problem is, my mother and father--I knew them my entire lifetime, not once did they reveal themselves to me...so I don't believe that a portrait of a total stranger or a very famous person has anything to do with who that person is.
Duane Michals: I like to photograph anybody. It's easier to photograph artists because they live in interesting spaces, and they lend themselves to photography. Photographing a business man will kill you. I've photographed lots of business men and they're always very tight-assed, and they're very difficult to do, but that's part of the challenge. I'm up for anything, I really am.
Robert Farber: And in your latest work which direction have you taken? Do you find yourself evolving in any new directions? I should ask you this way--as a photographer I can relate and it's important for me to know--I find myself evolving in a certain direction--are you taking your work in new directions as the days go by?
Duane Michals: Actually, over the years, I began to write about 20 years ago with photographs, and now I'm writing more and more. I think I can express myself more intimately with language than I can with photographs. So I call myself--when people ask what am I, I say I'm an expressionist. It's not about photography, it's not about painting, it's not about writing--it's about how well you express yourself in terms of what you have to say, what you need to say.
Robert Farber: But I also notice how beautiful and story-telling your still life images are without people in them. Not only the way you capture life, the feeling of it, but it really tells a story, and that's nice. Is that something that you continue doing?
Duane Michals: Well I'm very verbal, and that's the way Cartier Bresson had to walk around with a camera, that's what he did. This is what I do. I love the products of my imagination, and my only limit is my own imagination.
Robert Farber: You, with your involvement in both areas in both fine art, even though you don't like to call it fine art, and the commercial work--what advice could you give to photographers that are just starting out who are trying to find their direction, trying to develop a style....
Duane Michals: Do it. You have two choices in life--doing and bullshit. I hate photographers who talk about photographs but never take any. And the only way you're ever going to grow...two things, one you have to take risks, you have to be able to let go of all your preconceived notions of what photography should be, and open yourself to the possibilities. Otherwise you're going to be spinning your wheels the rest of your life.
Robert Farber: As far as with new photographers starting out...do you suggest that they concentrate more on their fine art or commercial work if they have an interest in both--because I know as a photographer there's one thing I say, you always forget once you start making money at photography--what interests you in the first place, what's your advice in that direction?
Duane Michals: I think what's essential there is not to become a business--I've never had a studio, I've never had an agent until just recently. When you take the traditional route of the assistant, then you take over and have $5000 doa week in overhead, then you've got to take all kinds of crap you don't really want to do. So I never wanted to be Avadon, I didn't ever want to do five million a year. I didn't want to do any of that. I want my freedom, and that's exactly what I've done. So I'm cottage industry, I think small. So if that's what you want, then do it, but when you do that be aware that you're going to be stuck with this great overhead and you're going to have no freedom. So I usually work on avg one or two days a week. I've done tons and tons of exhibits and books and its because I've always worked simultaneously on my own work as well as jobs.
Robert Farber: When you say you work one or two days a week, is that that you make sure you shoot your own things aside from shooting jobs, even during your down time do you shoot your own work?
Duane Michals: I always do my own work. But it's not the shooting--shooting is the easiest part--for me it's what do I care about, what makes me angry, what scares me? Figuring that out and being moved to somehow find a way of illustrating it or showing it.
Robert Farber: What does move you?
Duane Michals: A lot of things. The traditional ones: death, desire, anger, politcal anger, becoming aware of old age, paying attention to the way my mind works. Things that most people-
Robert Farber: When do you find yourself inspired the greatest? Through what, is it seeing other work, other visuals of things that go on during everyday life?
Duane Michals: No, it's paying attention, and sometimes we all have particular points of view. For me the father/son relationship is a subject I've come back to in so many many versions. Life after death, death state, metaphysical implications, I keep coming back to it. So, you know, I may read something and it suddenly catches my eye and I respond to it. I generate an enormous amount of curiosity. I think that's what separates me from other photographers. For example, I would never go to Africa and photograph black people and exotic costumes...I just did a project, as a matter of fact, for French Vogue a year ago in December. They wanted me to illustrate quantum physics, and I've always been interested in quantum, of course there's nothing to see. So that's a real problem, but that's the sort of thing I get intrigued by.
Robert Farber: If someone really wants to, what do you think is the best example of your work that people can look or go to the bookstore and pick up to really study you...or what museums or collections would you refer them to?
Duane Michals: I have a book out, about a year now, called the Essential Duane Michaels. That covers lots and lots...almost every area that I've been interested in and the text is very good. It's all the categories that I've been thinking about, and that's probably the best one. It's published by Bullfinch in the U.S.
Robert Farber: May I ask how old you are?
Duane Michals: 68.
Robert Farber: You look great for your age. Let me ask you, how do you feel about growing "old" (party expression, growing old), but so am I...
Duane Michals: No, it's terrific, we have such a youth culture, and there's always this fixation of being young and all the whole 14-18, what is it 18-49, the age group, the 90210, the Friends generation, and I'm so glad I'm not young any more. This is a great time of life. Young people never think they're ever going to get old, and of course it's inevitable. And if you play your cards right, your life should get more interesting and better and better, it shouldn't get worse and worse. It all depends on you, but I highly recommend getting older, but in a good way.
Robert Farber: Very well said. And with that, I really want to thank you. I really enjoyed this, and I know our listeners at the photo workshop will also. Thank you.
Duane Michals: So long, Mom.
Note: The above is a transcript of Robert Farber's interview with Duane Michals. It has undergone some editing for improved readibility. You may also wish--or prefer--to listen to the actual original interview while viewing some of Mr. Michals' images.