Arts: Angels in America

Duane Michals pays homage to Walt Whitman in a series of sensual works. By Ian Phillips

Thursday 09 September 1999 23:02

AT THE age of 17, Duane Michals saved up two weeks of his salary as a paper-boy and for five dollars bought his first ever volume of poetry - Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. What he read made an indelible impression on him. "He spoke to me directly and he spoke with a great vitality and a great openness and honesty", says Michals in his Greenwich Village apartment. "Also, at that point, being a gay person, I began to identify with what he was talking about. It was a revelation."

Michals has kept the book ever since and in 1995 published his own homage to the great American poet entitled Salute, Walt Whitman. It consists of a series of photos of a blond, lightly clad Adonis shot in the country near Michal's house in upstate New York. From 10 September, they go on show for the first time in the UK at Hamiltons Gallery in London.

In some of them, Michals has incorporated lines of Whitman's poetry by having his model pose with an enormous book. Others he has juxtaposed with various texts: excerpts from Whitman's writing, and interviews with those who knew him well. It was a project which, he says, was both daunting and intimidating. "Whitman was such a big thing in my mind," he declares. "It was like a young painter having to do Picasso's portrait."

Michals himself never had the opportunity to take Picasso's portrait. However, he has photographed numerous other artists. He shot French writer Marguerite Duras on a New York bus, Jeanne Moreau at the top of a fire escape and Marcel Duchamp looking out of a window. He also has a photo of himself with Giorgio De Chirico and in 1966, spent a couple of weeks at Rene Magritte's house. He photographed the Surrealist in his studio, lying on his sofa with a bowler hat upside down on his head. He used to have Magritte's thank-you letter framed in his apartment, but has since put it in a safe place: "For me, it's like a relic and I was afraid there'd be a leak and that it would get all wet."

Yet, it is not for his portraits that Michals is most known, but rather for the two innovations he brought to photography in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The first was the idea of telling a story through a series of photos, a device which became known as "Sequences". Michals asserts that he found "the limitations of still photography enormous" and through each series, has illustrated ideas more than things themselves. The Journey of the Spirit After Death is, for example, Michals' take on what happens to our souls between two reincarnations.

In 1974, he added even further narrative to his work by becoming the first photographer to write on his images and thus repudiate the age- old maxim that a photo tells a thousand words. "I write in order to express what the photo itself cannot say," he asserts. "A photograph of my father doesn't tell me what I thought of him, which for me is much more important than what the man looked like."

At times, the texts are short and pithy. At others they are as important (if not more so) than the images. Annie's Magic Hair, for instance, is a 27-line poem set next to a single photo of a girl holding a strand of hair between her fingers. The writing often has a quite wonderful rhythm, beautiful balance and is also almost invariably playful. "I'm a terrible punster," he admits. "And I love to rhyme. I just can't help myself."

The themes he treats in his work, however, are on the whole rather serious. "Art," he asserts, "has to address eternal issues." He has a great affinity with the mystical and the supernatural and his sequences are often peopled with saint-like figures and angels. Dreams and death are favourite subjects and he claims to "photograph things which are normally not physical: I photographed Magritte asleep. I would rather have photographed Magritte's dreams". Most of his models have been friends or acquaintances and he has steadfastly renounced customary photographic gadgets and trappings. He has never had a studio, only uses natural light and only got an agent last year.

Conversations with Michals easily slip off into high-flown philosophical realms. His current project, for instance, is a book called Questions Without Answers in which he aims to give his own take on age-old questions such as "What is Life?", "What is the Universe?" and "What is Desire?".

Yet talking to Michals is certainly not all heavy-duty. Indeed he has a wonderfully sharp and playful sense of humour. He was recently asked to do a men's fashion series and come up with a story entitled "How Brendan, the fashion-conscious ghost, who was condemned to a hell of wearing tacky clothes, steals a Calvin Klein suit and finds heaven". He also quite openly tells you that he gets his best ideas when he gets up for a pee in the middle of the night.

Now 67, he was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, the descendant of Czech immigrants. His father was a steelworker, his mother a live-in maid and at 14 he entered a drawing contest and won a scholarship to attend Saturday watercolour classes in Pittsburgh. His first job was as assistant art director at Dance Magazine and his love affair with photography began only in 1958 when he visited Russia with a borrowed camera. Very swiftly, he learnt the Russian for "May I take your picture?" and snapped a sailor, some circus acrobats and a little boy who had followed him for several blocks.

By 1961, Michals was working for Esquire and Mademoiselle. He covered the filming of The Great Gatsby for American Vogue, photographed the 1968 Olympics for the Mexican government, has done magazine covers for Life and the Synchronicity album cover for The Police, and also worked on advertising campaigns for the likes of Elizabeth Arden, Revlon and the pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly.

Nowadays, he tends to devote just one day a week to commercial projects and regrets the fact that "I usually get called in on very esoteric things. I long to do a straight headshot".

Recently, he wrote a piece called "Oh So SoHo", in which he compared the New York art scene to Hollywood. "I'm very hard on the art world just being a big business," he admits.

He is also rather harsh about contemporary photography on the whole. "It's started to become all about shock and in your face," he laments, citing as examples Joel-Peter Witkin "decapitating everyone", Larry Clark "photographing people shooting up" and Robert Mapplethorpe "pushing a whip up his arse".

"There's not one idea," he says. "It's all very hollow."

Duane Michals' `Salute, Walt Whitman' photographs are at Hamiltons, 13 Carlos Place, W1 (0171-499 9493) until 16 October

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