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Duane Michals: The Narrative Power of Photos

American Photographer

Duane Michals

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Duane Michals – Wikipedia

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Duane Michals [1932 – Present] is an innovative American photographer known for his use of sequential images and text to explore themes beyond the conventional boundaries of the medium. 

Born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Michals’ distinctive approach combines narrative, philosophy, and a deep exploration of personal and universal subjects such as love, death, and sexuality. 

Largely self-taught, he began his photography career in the late 1950s and gained recognition in the 1970s for his unconventional use of photo sequences, which often include handwritten texts that add a poetic dimension to the images. 

Michals’ work challenges the documentary quality traditionally associated with photography, preferring instead to delve into the realms of the imagination and the metaphysical, making him a significant figure in the art world.

Read the full Biography below.

Photography Quotes From Duane Michals

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Duane Michals is renowned for incorporating handwritten texts to accompany his images, a method he pioneered to add narrative layers and personal commentary to his photographs. This innovative approach has distinguished his work in the field of fine art photography.

Videos about Duane Michals

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Unlike many photographers of his era, Michals often staged his photographs, creating sequences that resemble film strips or comic book frames to convey stories or philosophical musings about life, death, and love.

Photography Books: Duane Michals

📸 Did you know?
Michals’ first significant encounter with photography was during a trip to the Soviet Union in 1958, where he borrowed a camera to document his journey. This trip sparked his passion for storytelling through images, leading to his career as a self-taught photographer.

Biography of Duane Michals

Early Life and Education

Duane Michals was born on February 18, 1932, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a small steel mill town near Pittsburgh. 

Growing up in a working-class family during the Great Depression, Michals cultivated a rich imagination to escape the industrial landscape of his youth. 

His interest in art began early but did not initially focus on photography. 

Michals attended the University of Denver, where he studied art, and later completed his education at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, focusing initially on graphic design.

Entry into Photography

Michals’ journey into photography was unconventional. He did not own a camera until the age of 25, when he borrowed one while on a trip to the Soviet Union in 1958. 

The photographs he took during this trip, purely as an amateur, were remarkably compelling and led to his first exhibition. 

This unexpected success convinced him to pursue photography seriously despite having no formal training in the field.

Innovative Style and Approach

Michals is renowned for his distinctive approach to photography, which blends elements of storytelling, painting, and cinema. 

Unlike many of his contemporaries who focused on capturing the decisive moment, Michals sought to explore beyond the surface of reality. 

He often incorporated sequences of multiple images, handwritten texts, and the use of double exposure to create narrative arcs and philosophical musings within his work. 

This technique allowed him to delve into themes such as sexuality, mortality, and the metaphysical, pushing the boundaries of traditional photographic practice.

Significant Contributions and Major Works

One of Michals’ most famous series is “The Spirit Leaves the Body” (1968), which reflects his fascination with existential questions and the invisible realities of life. 

He also gained recognition for “Things are Queer” (1973), a playful yet profound exploration of perception and the fluidity of reality. 

His work often addresses human emotions and relationships, imbued with a sense of irony and whimsical humor.

Personal and Philosophical Themes

Michals’ photography is deeply personal, reflecting his own experiences, thoughts, and feelings. 

Openly gay, much of his work subtly explores themes of homosexuality, identity, and personal introspection, providing a window into his life and the challenges of the LGBTQ community during times when such discussions were often taboo.

Exhibitions and Publications

Michals’ work has been extensively exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide, including solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. 

He has published numerous books that showcase his innovative use of sequences and text, such as The House I Once Called Home and The Journey of the Spirit After Death

His contributions to the field have been celebrated in retrospectives that highlight the breadth and depth of his creative explorations.

Legacy and Influence

Duane Michals has significantly influenced the realm of contemporary photography and visual art. His approach has opened up new possibilities for the use of photography as a narrative medium, encouraging photographers to experiment with storytelling in their work. 

Michals has also been a mentor and teacher, sharing his knowledge and insights through workshops and lectures, inspiring a new generation of artists to explore their unique visions.

Current Work and Ongoing Projects

As of the last updates available in 2023, Michals continues to create, explore, and exhibit new work. 

His recent projects continue to challenge conventional notions of photography, combining images with questions and statements that provoke thought and dialogue.


Duane Michals’ contributions to photography extend beyond his images; he has reshaped our understanding of what photography can be and achieve. 

His career is a testament to the power of the medium to explore and express the deepest aspects of human experience, combining visual and textual elements to explore complex personal and philosophical themes. 

Michals remains a vital force in the world of art, consistently reminding us of the endless possibilities for creativity and expression within the photographic form.

Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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