Monday, February 4, 2013

Born in PGH: Duane Michals

I've been taking a class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. I'll have much more to say on that in upcoming posts. The point of telling you that now is to explain how I came to know of Duane Michals. In the first part of the class we are learning some basic photography, something I have always been interested in, but never schooled in. The other night, during the second half of class, we watched Duaneland, a documentary on photographer Duane Michals. It was my first time encountering him or his work, but I was immediately charmed.

Michals was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, on February 18, 1932. McKeesport is just down the river from Pittsburgh, and during Michals' childhood a trolley ride away. So we're counting Michals under the Born in PGH designation. He is absolutely fascinating. He became interested in art while attending art classes at the Carnegie Institute (Carnegie Museum of Art). He left Pittsburgh and went to college in Denver and then to New York to study briefly at Parsons School of Design. During a holiday in the USSR (sounds like my kind of guy, taking holidays in non-holiday-esque places!), he realized his interest in photography, which set his career in motion.

Michals' major contribution: series of photos. 

Throughout the documentary, Michals is speaking to a group of students from his high school in McKeesport. He is being incredibly frank with them. His approach seems so no-holds-barred that I was cringing a bit thinking of the anxiety attacks the supervising teachers must have been having. He speaks about God, about being gay, and begs the students many times "ask me anything." I was instantly jealous that these high school students had this experience with him at that time in their lives.

One of Michals' portraits of Andy Warhol, another Slovak from Pittsburgh making a name for himself in the arts.

A portrait of Magritte.
The last part of the documentary features one of Michals' later-life projects, one that found him again in McKeesport. He took photos of his childhood home in complete disrepair and unfortunate early ruin. He double-exposed the photos and ended up with The House I Once Called Home: A Photographic Memoir with Verse.

A Post-Gazette article from 2004 gives details of Michals' life and his views on the subject. Apparently, he has promised his archive and art collection to the Carnegie, which endears him to me even more. He is a lovely person, a creative spirit, and he is Born in PGH.

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