Duane Michals (b. 1932, McKeesport, PA) is one of the great photographic innovators of the last century, widely known for his work with series, multiple exposures, and text. He received a BA from the University of Denver in 1953 and worked as a graphic designer until his involvement with photography deepened in the late 1950s. He currently lives and works in New York City.
In an era heavily influenced by photojournalism, Michals manipulated the medium to communicate narratives. The sequences, for which he is widely known, appropriate cinema’s frame-by-frame format. Michals has also incorporated text as a key component in his works, adding another dimension to the images’ meaning.
Monographs of Michals’s work include Homage to Cavafy (1978); Nature of Desire (1989); Duane Michals: Now Becoming Then (1990); Salute, Walt Whitman (1996); The Essential Duane Michals (1997); Questions Without Answers (2001); The House I Once Called Home (2003) and Foto Follies / How Photography Lost Its Virginity on the Way to the Bank (2006).
In 1964, he began to document New York City in a tantalisingly unfamiliar guise, virtually empty of inhabitants at dawn or dusk. In deeply evocative black-and-white images he depicted storefronts and interiors; deserted stations, subway cars, funfairs and arcades; derelict markets, vacant theatres and diners.
Day after day Michals would rise at dawn to capture unpeopled sidewalks, bridges and parking lots, architectural fragments, the Hudson River, cityscapes in the mist, skyscrapers and urban nature reflected in the puddles of Central Park.
Forrest Soper: The first question that I wanted to ask you is: This body of work was one of the earliest photographic series you made. You were in your early thirties, and you had only really been working with photography for around six years. Do you recall what first inspired you to take photographs of the city in this way?
Duane Michals: I fell in love with Atget. Don’t forget, that was a long time ago and Atget wasn’t well-known at all. And every now and then I would run into one of his pictures of empty Paris, and I was just thrilled! And then I saw this wonderful documentary by a photographer named Becker called Atget (Harold Becker, Eugène Atget, 1964) It was stunning, mesmerizing, and almost like walking through a dream of Paris in 1901 or something… whatever the date. So, I decided to do an exercise on New York in the same way. I began to get up early Sunday mornings and just walk around the streets. If you photographed a bodega with one person in it, you looked at the person…and I was just looking at the environment.
I knew that wasn’t what I would be doing in my life, but it was an exercise. I did it for, I don’t know for how long… and I published a few of them. But eventually, it led me to do stories because these different places looked like stage sets, and then I thought well, if they’re stage sets, then I could ‘people them’ and make my own drama. Empty New York — An Interview with Duane Michals by Forrest Soper