“Empty New York,” by Duane Michals, 1964.
Travel to the Soviet Union during the darkest days of the Cold War as an American was unusual, but for Duane Michals, the unusual has proved to be the norm. Throughout his career, the highly regarded fine-art photographer has embraced the commercial world and scoffed at the idea that it’s “selling out.”
In 1964-’65, the Pennsylvania-born New York City transplant explored the streets of his adopted home, at times when the city was virtually void of foot and vehicular traffic. His almost “Twilight Zone” view of the Big Apple allows us to study this unique metropolis without any human distractions.
Most of the images from these early, camera-in-hand urban expeditions have laid dormant until the publication of Empty New York (Enitharmon Editions), a time capsule of sorts opened up in 2019, unveiling a city frozen in time just as Eugène Atget, one of Michals’ heroes, commemorated Paris in the early years of the 20th century.
Digital Photo Pro: What’s the concept behind Empty New York?
Duane Michals: In 1964, I was just wetting my whistle in photography. I ran into the work of Atget. I began to see an Atget print here and an Atget print there. I was arrested by their beauty and solitude.
Simultaneously, I was also looking at the French painter Balthus. There’s a painting of a street scene at Museum of Modern Art [in New York] by him. If you remove the people from the street, it would have been an Atget photograph.
I was moved to do something about it. So, I began going out early in the morning in New York. This was not a destination. I knew this was not what my life’s work would be about, but it was an exercise that I gave myself, a self-assignment.
I would go out around 6 a.m. on Sundays because if you photograph the streets with one person on it, you look at the person. I didn’t want to look at the person. I wanted to see these places empty. I developed a technique where I could put my camera up against the glass to keep out reflections and shadows and actually get the feeling of being inside a given space.
What camera were you working with?
It was a Nikon. When I went to Russia in 1958, I took a borrowed an Argus C3, then I started using a borrowed Minolta until I could afford to buy myself a Nikon.
I was never into Leicas and that whole tradition. Everybody had to have a Leica because [Henri] Cartier-Bresson used one. I like the single-lens reflex. But I was never a camera devotee. I didn’t have a hang-up on a camera any more than Proust would have had one on a typewriter, if he had used one. To me, the camera should be invisible. It should not be something that gets between you and what you’re trying to photograph.
It’s not about the type of paintbrush you use…
Exactly. But in photography, there was a mystique about equipment.
I remember a program on Ansel Adams where they showed you the car he stood on top of with his tripod, as if somehow these ingredients were essential to what he did. They were important, but what was essential was his vision, the way he saw things.
He had that station wagon with a platform on it for photography.
Fine, that’s nice. OK, but get on with it. Why did he take those pictures? The “why” of why I took those pictures was simply an exercise because I was so knocked out by Atget. Before Atget, there was Charles Marville working in the same style. Atget actually described himself as doing photos for artists. He wasn’t clinical.
You discovered photography on the trip to the Soviet Union. It was a pretty unusual place to go back then.
I just had this idea of having adventures, although I came from a steelworker family in a suburb of Pittsburgh.
When I was 14, I went to Texas after reading an article about wheat crops in the McKeesport Daily News. It whetted my appetite.
Then, I got a scholarship to go to school in Colorado at 17, and that was a huge adventure. I went into the ROTC in college. This was 1949. Then, the Korean War broke out in 1950. I graduated from school in 1953 and went into the Army from 1953-1955. When I was 21, I got a commission as a second lieutenant. They sent me to an armor unit. It was total shock and awe.
After armor school, I was sent to Germany. That was an adventure I could have lived without. We were always in the field. We were supposed to stop the Russians if they came over the horizon. I was in a very obscure base in Baumholder where [Erwin] Rommel trained his Afrika Korps.
A funny coincidence…I was photographing Michael Richards, who played Kramer [on “Seinfeld”], and we were talking about our time in the service. He told me he had also been stationed in Baumholder. There’s a strange comradery about people that have been in the service that’s hard to describe.
And that comradery lasts a lifetime.
I’m 87. You never consider [yourself] being old.
I guess I’m having what I call my “existential crisis.” I’ve been making a lot of movies now, and I’m doing one just about having become old.
When you get old, you’re all past with very little future. When you’re young, you’re all future and very little past.
I’ve always been introspective. The second book I did was The Journey of the Spirit after Death, based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I’ve always been interested in this subject, not so much the history of being but the actual nature of being. And now it’s sort of, I won’t say “overwhelming,” but it’s kind of daunting because smarter people than myself have not figured anything out.
Actually, there’s nothing to figure out.
Which brings me back to doing Empty New York because that was literally just documenting my environment, the streets I walked down every day. Then, I never did anything with it. Out of the 200+ images in the book, I maybe had 15 published.
The apocalyptic scenes in Stanley Kramer’s 1959 movie “On the Beach,” about nuclear fallout emptying the streets of still-intact cities, have scenes reminiscent of your Empty New York project.
You know why I remember that film? Ava Gardner. She was the most exclusive creature.
Looking at all these places, they began to look like stage sets, particularly the barbershop. On a hook was this white coat that the barber wore. He comes in, then puts on his barber costume, then does his barber act cutting hair all day and shaving customers.
I saw these places not just as a space but as a space where something occurred. Looking at Balthus’ street scenes led me to think, “Well, then, I should make my own dramas.” That was very liberating. I don’t know that if I hadn’t done the Empty New York series [first] if I would have arrived at the sequences series.
That [first] series opened my Pandora’s box.
When did you first start doing sequences and start writing on your images?
I was doing Empty New York 1964-’65, and by 1968-’69, I was doing sequences. I hit the trifecta.
Remember Camera magazine? Allan Porter from Philadelphia? They published my sequences in the magazine. Then, Doubleday saw the issue, called me up and said, “We want to do a photo book.”
Then, I got to see John Szarkowski at MoMA. He wasn’t at all interested in what I was doing. I was anathema to him. He was strictly reportage. If he included me in anything, it was because he had to. I was too visible to ignore. [Garry] Winogrand and [Lee] Friedlander and Diane [Arbus]—all traditional street people—is what he promoted. Then, he gave me a show because of Peter Bunnell, who was there as his assistant.
So, I hit the trifecta with Camera, a book and MoMA.
Were you making a living as a photographer at that time?
I was always making a living as a photographer.
See, that’s a big mistake, and I wish photography schools would tell students that. I gave a talk at a graduation at the New School, and asked the kids, “What does it cost to go here? Two-hundred thousand dollars? Get out on the street and take pictures.”
Then they graduate and think they’re going to go out and become Cindy Sherman. And they’re not.
I never, ever wanted my private work to support me. I always did commercial work, and they are actually taught to look down on commercial work. It’s shocking.
An adverting job can support a personal project for months.
I was proud of my commercial work. I am the complete photographer.
There are art photographers who never made a nickel in the commercial world. I made a career in the commercial world, but I never had the apparatus of a business. I never wanted to be a business. I never had a studio.
All these people who [say they] won’t sell out have nothing to sell. It’s harder to be a commercial photographer because you have to make other people happy. You have to produce. I’ve done Life covers, campaigns for Massachusetts Mutual, a sequence for the Synchronicity album cover for The Police.
How did you learn the technical aspects of photography?
On the job.
What are you shooting with these days?
With a lot of courage.
At this age, I have a full-time assistant, and I have a little group, and we’ve been making movies for the last three or four years. I call us the “19th Street Players.”
I’m shooting with the top-of-the-line Canon. The camera is so amazing, we shoot everything with it. I’ve shown them in movie theaters and large screens in museums, and it holds up beautifully. The quality is stunning.
We have a sound guy come in. I’m very much into production qualities. I was never a darkroom freak, though I did all my own printing and lots of tricky stuff, including double exposures: The print of the guy on a subway platform who becomes a star took a lot of time in the darkroom to figure out.
After many years, I thought, if I could find somebody who could print better than I could, I’d get out of the darkroom. And I did.
If I’m using old negatives, I’ll still have them done on silver-gelatin. But all the new stuff is digital, which I love.
What do you see looking back at Empty New York that you didn’t see at the time?
I don’t remember taking most of those pictures, but the book has such a sense of the time. There’s huge nostalgia in those pictures.
These pictures were never a destination, but they liberated me. Luckily, I didn’t come up through the photo ranks when I began to do sequences, so I didn’t have to unlearn anything.
Then I began to write with photographs. I’m a storyteller, and I’m a bullshitter. I’m very verbal. That’s one gift my mother said my dad gave me, “the gift of gab.”
I was liberating myself from the restrictions of photography by writing. I began to write about what you could not see in the picture. A caption tells you what you’re looking at. I tell you what you can’t see in the photograph.
For example, if I showed you a picture of my mother and father when they were in their 60s, and they’re standing next to each other smiling, and he has his hand around her shoulder, it doesn’t tell you anything. It doesn’t tell you he was an alcoholic. It doesn’t tell you he was a bullshitter. It doesn’t tell you they hadn’t had sex in 40 years.
In my portrait book, I did a long discussion about the danger of what a portrait really amounts to. I tend to question photography, not regurgitate it.
How do you come up with ideas?
Things are always popping into my head.
I’m working on a new movie now, and I’m going to have a fish in it, and I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to make this work. I’m only engaged in ideas. It’s all in the doing.
There are two choices in life, doing and bullshit. Only direct experience is true knowledge. I’m an empiricist. Nobody’s gone to Paris until you’ve gone to Paris. Nobody’s baked a cake until you’ve baked a cake. It’s like the difference between reading a hundred love stories and falling in love. Photographers are always reading love stories. I’m more of the “let’s fall in love” variety.
Did René Magritte’s writing on some of his paintings, such as “The Treachery of Images” with the words “ceci n’est pas une pipe,” have an influence on you?
Not really. I was visually inspired by his contradiction because he contradicted you. I did a book on him called, A Visit with Magritte (Steidl). I spent a week in Brussels visiting him.
I also have him in a book I did called ABCDuane (The Monacelli Press). It’s my ABCs. Under “A,” I wrote about Atget; under “M,” I wrote about Magritte.
I did the whole alphabet. The first time I saw a Magritte painting was in 1960 in Harper’s Bazaar. It was this photograph of a naked lady with a mirror in front of her reflected in the mirror.
I thought, “That’s impossible. How did this photographer do this picture?” I finally realized it was not a photograph. Because he painted so realistically, I loved it because he contradicted.
By principle, photographers tell you what you already know. I know what a car looks like. I know what snow looks like.
Show me what I don’t know, just don’t regurgitate the facts.
For more on Duane Michals, visit duanemichals.tumblr.com.