Age is but a number

82-year-old photographer Duane Michals speaks about his life's work


Duane Michals has spent over half of his life capturing his imagination with a camera.

Michals discussed his growth as an artist and his 56 years in photography at the Center for the Arts on Monday. He presented his pictures to the audience as examples of his artistic development. He said he reached his true potential by keeping an open mind and experiencing life.

"Everyone is so wrapped up in MOMA and all those types of art and then he just says f**k it, just do it,” said William Loo, a freshman graphic design major. “He spoke to my heart when he said just do it, do whatever you want.”

The 82-year-old artist reflected on his beginnings as a photographer, saying a trip to the Soviet Union when he was 26 started his passion. Michals borrowed a friend’s camera and took portraits of people on the street.

His hobby soon turned into a profession. He published his work in magazines like Vogue, Mademoiselle, Life and Esquire.

Michals created documentary images of events he called part of the “social landscape” such as the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico. His work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City in 1970.

He prefers not to worry about technique or camera type and focuses on his ideas instead. He discussed how he allows his ideas to bounce off one another, letting his stream of consciousness flow freely to help him create original work.

While one person might photograph an attractive woman, Michals would create an entire story about that woman, just through his photography.

The artist pushed boundaries, experimenting with his images by including text and drawings. He creates stories with his images – allowing photographs to speak in lieu of paragraphs and pages – and includes short sentences to move his visual ideas forward.

His art resembles that of Transformational Imagemaking, which involves drawing and layering text over a photograph.

Artist and author Robert Hirsch curated the CEPA Gallery exhibition “Transformational Imagemaking,” and introduced Michals.

"I first saw [Michals] as an undergraduate,” Hirsch said. “What struck me most was the way that he was challenging the photographic notion of the decisive moment.”

The acclaimed artist is more than a photographer. He has published a number of books, including Sequences (1970) and Eros & Thanatos (1992). At one point in his lecture, Michals mentioned how he enjoys writing and feels like the arts are his “aesthetic field.”

Aside from his art, Michals discussed how accepting himself as an atheist and homosexual has shaped both his personality and his work. The artist has allowed himself to open his mind to a world of possibilities he may have never known.

“The Chinese say to walk around the world you have to take a step,” Michals said. “If you start a dialogue with yourself and [be] honest, you can write a whole novel. But you have to open that door, you can’t have anyone else do it for you.”

Michals has settled down with his partner in New York City and continues to create art. He has an upcoming retrospective at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and plans to release a book, ABCDuane: A Duane Michals Primer, by the end of the year.

Michals touched on topics greater than his own work, giving the audience a better perception of who he is as a person. His attitude toward life inspired many in attendance and demonstrated how artistic expression is not only self-awareness but also a reflection of the world around him.