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Tuesday, 12 August 2008


Great interview, and a reminder why atheists should run the world.

I, and a very small group of mostly collectors, spent an evening with Duane Michals in 2007. I can tell you that what you see in the video is exactly what you get in-person. He's a person of apparently boundless energy (truly remarkable for a man approaching 80) and equally boundless opinions.

I knew nothing of Duane Michaels or his work before I shook his hand. So my impressions of him were fresh. By the end of the evening I was left with one strong impression and, unfortunately, a not altogether positive aftertaste of Duane Michals.

Introductory note: Most bios of Michals portray him as a dazed kid who stumbled into photography after getting a journalistic assignment to Russia. Well, kinda. But the fact is that Michals subsequently earned a small fortune from years as a successful, although somewhat unremarkable, commercial photographer for fashion magazines and consumer brands.

My impression of his remarks concerning the state of contemporary art photography, photo education, and photo marketing is that he's dead right. Money really has corrupted photography in almost every imaginable way. Many of the "hottest" names in the art photo world really do pump out oversized crap that agents and gallery owners then deodorize for sale. I think that many of his observations along these lines are indisputable. So what else is new, Duane?

But my aftertaste of Duane Michals is that he's a rather sad and somewhat bitter man. I got the impression that in his twilight years he's sad and resentful that he has not become a photographic superstar. (Clue: he had nothing especially positive to say about any younger photographers. Nothing at all.) I wondered if he's not salving is irritation by declaring himself to be "different" and rebellious, even though he really is not. (Writing witty little verses next to his photographs does not make them better images; it turns them into magazinettes.) Just more bombastic.

I enjoyed my evening chatting and dining with Duane Michals. He's a very entertaining fellow, at least in small doses. But I think he'd do his memory a better service to find a way to adopt a slightly less cynical, more constructive outlook on photography's future. He has an opportunity, for an obviously limited time, to become an elder statesman for camera work. Instead he's chosen to be a gadfly and spends his days talking instead of shooting. That's too bad because he could really be much more influential than he is.

What a buzz kill.

Thank you, Mike for introducing me to Pixchannel. For some reason I had never heard of it. Some wonderful interviews there.

The Pix Channel looks like an awesome resource. I've never seen him speak before, it was totally fascinating. And I didn't get the negativity other commenters got.

Thank José, not me. I don't think I've ever mentioned them before....

Mike J.

I like his work and I liked what he had to say. The only book about him that I have is:

Duane Michals, The Photographic Illusion: Using the Mind's Eye To Create Photos For Collectors And Clients. Masters of Contemporary Photography published by Alskog/Crowell in 1975.

I guess I'm going to have to hit Amazon again. Dammm! Reading this blogg is giving me quite an Amazon habit. I'm going to have to work very hard to support it.

I'm probably rather contrary here, and this will come off as a grumpy rant, but I really don't appreciate audio/video interviews on the web. Video is great when what you want to show is constantly changing and moving; nothing else can do that justice. But when it is not, video is worse than just about any other alternative.

Text, unlike video, is silent and nonintrusive. With TV, everybody in the room is effectively tuned in to the same device as it were, so there is no problem, but with web casting like this you bother other people with it. And at work, where I (and a lot of people) spend time on the web, video is just right out.

With text you can read at your pace, not that of a speaker, and you can jump back and forth to remind yourself or re-read something you didn't grasp the first time through. Good if you want to check your understanding; great for non-native speakers for whom an audio interview may be completely unintelligible while the same words as text is easily understood given enough time. Also, quite a lot of people have bad enough hearing that they effectively can't watch this.

Video is difficult to link to (Mike couldn't even link to the right video directly; just to the site, leaving us to find the right video ourselves), and almost impossible to quote or excerpt. The only recourse is to - that's right - transcribe it and quote the resulting text.

Having any feature as video rather than text effectively shuts out people that can't run video at their location; hearing disabled (and visually impaired - think about it); and non-native speakers. It is harder to incorporate into any discussion. With a text interview people at a forum like this could easily quote pieces and discuss those points in detail; that is not going to happen with video.

Yes, video has its place (that Korean kid playing Pachebel for instance, or the Japanese "algorithm dance" could not have any other format), but given the negatives, it really needs to be used where its unique benefits outweigh them. I have yet to see a single interview ("talking heads" in some form or another) where this has been the case.

Ken Tanaka

I like your response to DM. I, however, see much of myself in DM; knowing that some things I've done are superb, but not sure that any one else sees that. Wrestling with mortality.

Small is good!


Cool site.

An interesting thread that runs through many of those interviews is the struggle to make a living as a photographer and the need to stand apart as an artist. Those who succeed seem be to be acutely aware of what's going on around them in the present, yet very attuned to the past work of musicians, painters, and other artists.

Geezers/Masters like Duane Michals and Arnold Newman have earned the right by sheer age and what they've done to be a little cranky at those who have perfected the style de jour of high-key-selective-focus, or whatever, or those who try to impress with 5-by-7-foot photos on canvas, or whatever.

Sometimes a good kick in the butt is a good motivator...


Mike J.

If you really want some gorgeous Duane Michals work , get a hold of the promotional pieces from Lieca that feature his work. they are good examples of reproduction that look better than any silver print of his that I've ever seen.

One of the things that always strikes me about his work is how black his blacks are. of course it's not that the blacks are blacker , or even that the whites are whiter but there is an abundance of whatever is the opposite of "glow". Really beautiful stuff.

I couldn't see the interview because I'm vacationing with my iPhone - hence no flash video for me, but I spent a few hours with him 30 years ago, when I was a photo student and he was at the height of his fame. He seemed like a bitter old man then, but still funny and insightful.

Thanks for the link...um...Mike?.....Jose? (sorry, I'm just not text savvy enough to get the accent over the "e").

It's interesting to see people in their comments trying to downplay Michals's contribution to photography. Sad, but interesting. I'd love to be able to check back here in 40 years (roughly the length of time Michals has been shooting) and see how many names on the "Comments" page are still (even?) being talked about. Let alone interviewed. People have such incredibly short memories.

The interview with Elliott Erwitt is even more instructive. Catch his remarks on what it takes to be a good photographer.

The only book I have on Michals is the one already mentioned - The Photographic Illusion from 1975, which is roughly when I acquired it. Thirty plus years on, it still has appeal, mainly due to the fact that no one has ever quite approached that style with the same vigour. Despite its age, it is probably the best introduction to his work.

And thanks for introducing Pixchannel, some interesting cameos there. I have to disagree with Janne; there is room for every kind of presentation format on the web, short videos of those we have only read about give an extra dimension to our understanding of them as people. I had no idea that Ralph Gibson was such an accomplished guitarist!

I think that this was an interesting interview and the site itself well worth the visit to watch the others.

I am not especially fond of reading on a computer screen and links to videos---or even audio links---provide a nice break. So thanks for the link to this interview in more ways than one.

Thanks for the introduction to Pix Channel; along with some others, I had not known of it.

The one thing that really hit me is when he asked why aren't they "teaching amazement". I'm sure he knows you, don't really teach that; I get what he means.

And I agree with that completely. When photography is first about the money and love of the avocation is second, it's corrupt; at least for me.

I didn't think he came across as particularly bitter, Ken, but you have had first had access, I haven't. Sometimes hard-biting criticism comes across that way. And I bet he's using some hyperbole; I doubt he means that every Magnum or other "serious" photographer has sold out.

I have "Homage to Cavafy" by Duane Michals. Does anybody please know where can i get in touch with him? I would love to get his signature on this marvelous book. It is a gem and I have it since 20 years ago. Thanks A LOT!!

I would suggest you contact his gallery to see about getting your work signed. He is represented by:
Robert Koch Gallery
49 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94108 USA
telephone: 415/421-0122
fax: 415/421-0122
email: info@kochgallery.com
hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10:30-5:30

Mike J.

Mike thank you for putting this video interview up.

I really dont think you should appologise for it, I am very dislexic and much prefer to listen to interviews than read them and when in an office i just use headphones..

As for the artist, his work is emotive,deep, meaningful and revealing of where he is on his spiritual path = advanced!

And what i love about the interview are the positive things he has to say.. he is sooo spot on..

one becomes a true artist once you have done the internal work and are able to connect with chi or source what ever you want to call it... until that point it is all as shallow as a frying pan.. this doesnt mean it has no value in society just very little depth..
and if you are creating from your heart with no other reason than to create the energy of a piece isn't dissipated..

we can all create for the market and to sell sell sell but its those who create from an egoless place and from that energy, they are able to create a bit of magic.. and this man seems to be a master of it... he has moved past learning to accept and know himself.. he has accepted himself and understands his qualities like working with his intuition, which he said is good.. how many of us are sure enough of ourselves we listen to our intuition 100% of the time, let alone act on it.

I also feel that as he is close to 80 he might not be as diplomatic as some one in their 50's might be. I know my dad who is about to turn 81 says things now that he would never have said out loud years ago.. it seems old age loosens the tongue and the boundries and tolerences and fear of what others think of ourselves.

He comes across as a very wise old man who still has the chi energy running very strong in him.

anyway thats my pennies worth.. and i am very thankful for seeing the video... and totally inspired :-)

I stumbled on this page and read Ken's comments with amazement. In 1973 or so Duane came to our photo class and pretty much dismissed my work out of hand. Odd, 35 years later to hear his name and remember the anger and confusion that I carried for some time over those few minutes.
I'm not glad that some may see him as bitter and sad... it just puts some perspective on it. (I still take photos and exhibit locally but I'm sure he wouldn't like them any better now !)
thanks, Ken

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