Duane Michals is one of the great photographic experimenters and innovators of 20th Century and now 21st Century photography. His exhibition Empty New York at the DC Moore shows that New York is never empty, it’s teeming with people and feelings and time
Photographer Duane Michals. The wonderfully touching Q&A in The New Yorker is titled The Last Sentimentalist. It’s partly because Michals’ work is about sentiment as feeling and sensation not nostalgia, the photographer not as someone who simply captures a moment in time, but who captures the ‘feelings’ that inhabit and live on in a space.
These images are more than a single moment in time, they’re what writer Henri Bergson calls ‘Duration’: a meeting place of different pasts, presents and futures; a meeting place of photographer and everyone who peoples these empty spaces; and a meeting place of photographer and viewer. As Michals writes in the thought-provoking PDN Legends online gallery, “It is no accident that you are reading this. I am making black marks on white paper. These marks are my thoughts, and although I do not know who you are reading this now, in some way the lines of our lives have intersected… For the length of these few sentences, we meet here. It is no accident that you are reading this. This moment has been waiting for you, I have been waiting for you. Remember me.” These photos have been waiting for us too.
He began his career as a graphic designer, before photography took over and commercially he has shot for Vogue, Esquire, Mademoiselle, and Life magazines. Michals is known for using words (script) to accompany images, in this instance his name also becomes an image, barely legible shapes under the image. If his imagery is partly about ‘duration’, the mash of past, present and future, it’s because this is how he sees the world. In the deeply touching Q&A with Siobhna Bohnacker in The New Yorker Michals reflects on his relationship with his partner Fred who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, “We’ve been together for a long time, and I’ve known him over many incarnations. There’s the infatuation Fred, there’s the long-term Fred, and this is the last of the Freds. But of all of the Freds that I’ve known, this is maybe the best one. This is Fred exiting. There’s no subterfuge—he says exactly what he feels. [I] asked Fred, ‘Why do you think we’re here?’ And he replied, ‘To take care of each other.’ I thought that was brilliant. That’s the only meaning!”
Empty New York Exhibition at the DC Moore Gallery NYC. Empty New York is the artist’s second solo exhibition at this gallery. The show is made up of 30 silver gelatin prints – all roughly 5 x 7 in size printed on 8×10 paper, all taken in the early 1960s at the beginning of Michals’ career. The show explores the quiet moments in the early morning around New York city: empty streets, empty stores – all evoking a dramatic stillness that can only be found before the city comes to life.
The work in this show was inspired by Michals’ admiration of French photographer Eugene Atget and his photographs of the streets of Paris from the nineteenth century. The press release reveals Michals’ wonder at his discovery of this body of work, “It was a fortuitous event for me (to discover the work of Eugene Atget in a book). I became so enchanted by the intimacy of the rooms and streets and people he photographed that I found myself looking at twentieth-century New York through nineteenth century eyes. Everywhere seemed a stage set. I would awaken early on Sunday mornings and wander through New York with my camera peering into shop windows and down cul-de sacs with a bemused Atget peering over my shoulder.”
This body of work was photographed early on in Michals’ career – a prequel to the style he became known for – sequences that extend the decisive moment and photographs with provocative handwritten notes, and so it goes that once he saw these images without people in them – he had to go out and “people them” – setting the stage for an evolution in his style that would propel him to a new level of creativity in his career.
That the inspiration for these photographs can be traced back to an earlier time and that one of the great photographers of our time was inspired by a great from another era brings the idea of provenance full circle in this show.
Empty New York, with its smaller images strips us back to the exhibition really being about the viewer and the image. There is an intimacy of being eye level with the photograph – not having to step back and look at in awe. For Michals, the large museum-size photograph just becomes an “expensive commodity” and we lose out on the idea of a photograph just being what it is. As a country, we’ve been moving away from the mantra of “Bigger is Better” and getting back to basics, this show reflects a wider desire for simplicity.
Choose One Image?
Empty street, Little Italy.
I see what is not in the photograph – a street packed with people, couples, families, neighbours and friends. Vendors hawking their foods and the excitement that permeates the air on Mulberry Street during the Festival of San Gennaro. For me this photo is a place where nostalgia and personal memory meet.
Art meets Commerce?
I think that the simplicity and size of the images in this show, reflecting the artists disdain for huge museum sized prints for exhibition. Advertisers are wooing clients with the promise of keeping it simple, honest and pure to offer some relief to people’s busy lives. Duane Michals has always subscribed to that way of doing things.
One question for the Image Maker?
Walk me through your process of creating a portrait? At what point does the narrative come into play?