Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Duane Michals - Empty New York

On Thursday, November 8, I went to hear photographer Duane Michals speak at 192 Books on 10th Avenue about his new book, Empty New York. Michals began making photographs in 1963-64 after falling deeply in love with Eugène Atget’s documentation of the streets and architecture of Paris. Atget was relatively unknown at the time; most of his work was published posthumously by Berenice Abbott. Michals wanted to see the environment of New York City without people. He said that when you peer into a room with even one person inside, you see that person, not the room itself. He began photographing early in the morning and pressed his camera lens against the windows of empty shops and restaurants. Michals said he saw these places like stage sets, waiting for the cast to arrive. Everything is a performance: a barber in his barbershop is doing the barbershop act, the bookseller in the bookshop is doing the bookshop act. Little dramas.

Going off on so many tangents throughout his talk, I made note of some of Michals’ most interesting points. He learned everything he knows about photography on the job. He said going to school for photography is a waste of time, and that anyone interested in pursing the art should just “go out on the street and take pictures.” He believes that if you do attend university, you should leave school asking more questions than when you arrived. This particular point resonated with me, because school tends to drain artists of their creativity when we’re forced to learn and follow so many rules – something I experienced – and for most of us, the only question we were asking when we graduated was “what the hell am I doing?” (I’ve been incredibly lucky to have overcome that.) Michals said that those constraints stopper creativity and it’s much harder to unlearn the rules than it is to learn them in the first place.

He hates MoMA because he thinks of it like a factory in both design and content, which I found ironic due to his connection to Andy Warhol. I wrote a piece on Michals in August of 2016, detailing my introduction to his work and about finding an issue of GROUND Mag with his photograph of Andy Warhol covering his face with his hands, and the subsequent cover story. While Michals was speaking, he brought up Warhol, and described him as “one of the most boring people” he’s ever met. I couldn’t help but laugh, given my [unfortunate] attraction to anything Warhol-related, which is initially what lead me to discover Michals’ connection to him.

He mentioned Ralph Eugene Meatyard, a photographer whose work has always made me uncomfortable, and said, “We should not be surprised that an optician became a photographic seer.” He also had a lot to say about portraiture, declaring, “Most portraits are lies,” and, “The biggest con men are the big smilers.” This reminded me of what he said in the GROUND Mag article about selfies, and how much us heading in that direction photographically troubles him.

He called himself the “antichrist photographer,” because of his love for digital, even throwing out, “Fuck film! I love digital!” He tore down everything a purist photographer would believe, though at 86 years old with a massive body of work, it seems he’s earned the right to be called an authority on the subject and no longer worry about the purity of the art form.

When he was finished speaking, those of us who wanted our copies of the monograph signed queued up. I was first in line and had a chance to tell him that the quote I loved from his article in GROUND Mag has been hanging on my mirror in my apartment for the last four years. He asked me to recite the quote, and actually spoke aloud about that idea momentarily.
He signed my book: “Hello Chelsea…. Goodbye. Duane Michals