Duane Michals was born in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania into a typical working-class environment: his father was a steel worker and his mother a housekeeper. His interest in art began at age 14, when he began taking Saturday-afternoon watercolor classes at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. He received a B.A. from the University of Denver in 1953, and though he made a decision not to pursue a fine-arts career at that time, he developed a keen interest in the work of other artists – particularly surrealist masters such as Magritte, de Chirico and Balthus.
In 1956 he attended the Parsons School of Design in New York with thoughts of becoming a graphic designer. After just a year, however, he left and took various jobs in publishing – including working as an assistant art director for Dance magazine and as a designer in the publicity department at Time Inc.
It was during a three-week visit to Russia in 1958 that Michals first experienced his love of photography. Using a borrowed camera, he recorded a series of plain, yet elegant portraits of the people he encountered during his travels – images that would lead to his first public exhibition. In a biographical sketch in The Essential Duane Michals, author Marco Livingstone writes: “The portraits made during that trip were of the utmost simplicity and directness, successful (as he was the first to recognize) precisely because he was not setting out to be a photographer,” he writes. “As soon as he saw the results, he realized that they were worth making public and that he had found his real metier.”
By 1969, Michals was earning his living shooting commercially – though he has never owned a studio, or even learned to use strobe lighting. Today, to the surprise of many who only know his artistic works, he earns his living almost entirely from commercial shooting.
He has shot everything from Life covers, to fashion spreads for Vogue magazine to annual reports for the New York Times – he even shot the ‘Synchronicity’ album cover for the Police.
Though a master of both shooting and darkroom technique, Michals is entirely self-taught and, in fact, credits much of his success to his lack of formal training. “I was lucky because I never went to photography school and I didn’t learn the photography rules,” he says. “And in not learning the rules, I was free. I always say, you’re either defined by the medium or you redefine the medium in terms of your needs.”
Michals’ role as something of an outsider and rebel seems to provide him with great amusement: “If I was concerned about being accepted, I would have been doing Ansel Adams look-a-likes, because that was easily accepted,” he explains. “Everything that I did was never accepted…but luckily for me, my interest in the subject and my passion for the subject took me to that point that I wasn’t wounded by that and eventually, people came around to me.”
With more than 20 books of his works in print, including a retrospective entitled The Essential Duane Michals (Bullfinch, New York, 1997) and a book dedicated to his poetic hero, Walt Whitman entitled Salute: Walt Whitman. There is no doubt that the those who have studied his pictures have come around to see the world from the Michal’s curious, often humorous, always penetrating perspective. His photographs have been shown in countless solo and group exhibitions in France, Great Britain and the United States. He has won numerous awards and his works are in major collections around the world.