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Empty New York — An Interview with Duane Michals

Book Store Interview Empty New York Photographs and Text by Duane Michals Interview by Forrest Soper Beautifully realised and now achingly nostalgic, the photographs in Empty New York show us the city frozen in time, just as Eugène Atget, one of Michals’ heroes, commemorated Paris in the early years of the twentieth century. As much social history as photographic reportage, Duane Michals’ pictorial poem reminds us with every frame how he has earned his place among the greats of American photography.
Empty New York. By Duane Michals.
Empty New York
Photographs and Text by Duane Michals

Enitharmon Press, London, UK, 2018.
In English. 224 pp., 12x13x1¼".

The following interview took place at 12:00 PM EST on June 25th, 2019 during a phone conversation between Duane Michals and Forrest Soper. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Forrest Soper: I’m speaking today with Duane Michals whose most recent book Empty New York, was published in 2018. It contains over two hundred duotone images of New York City made in the 1960s. As the title suggests, most of these images lack human presence creating an empty portrait of the city that is seldom seen.

The first question that I wanted to ask you is: This body of work was one of the earliest photographic series you made. You were in your early thirties, and you had only really been working with photography for around six years. Do you recall what first inspired you to take photographs of the city in this way?

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

Duane Michals: I fell in love with Atget. Don’t forget, that was a long time ago and Atget wasn’t well known at all. And every now and then I would run into one of his pictures of empty Paris, and I was just thrilled! And then I saw this wonderful documentary by a photographer named Becker called Atget (Harold Becker, Eugène Atget, 1964) It was stunning, mesmerizing, and almost like walking through a dream of Paris in 1901 or something… whatever the date. So, I decided to do an exercise on New York in the same way. I began to get up early Sunday mornings and just walk around the streets. If you photographed a bodega with one person in it, you looked at the person…and I was just looking at the environment.

I knew that wasn’t what I would be doing in my life, but it was an exercise. I did it for, I don’t know for how long… and I published a few of them. But eventually, it led me to do stories because these different places looked like stage sets, and then I thought well, if they’re stage sets, then I could ‘people them’ and make my own drama. The question was: 'how do I do that?' And the second question: 'what is my drama?'

FS: And when you first saw Atget’s work, what was it specifically about his images that captivated and inspired you?

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

DM: It was the emptiness. It was like the city had been abandoned. It was usually dramatic because, in New York, we are used to traffic and cars honking and people running against the light and cellphones. And suddenly there was a beautiful, beautiful corner and it forced me to look at the corner itself. And of course, time is on the side of photography, and these photographs which were done in the 60’s it’s already a long time… '64 I believe, look how long ago that is already and they have a dated quality.

It’s like looking at old Times Square — which by today’s standards looks like downtown Peoria, Illinois — and looking at Penn Station which was stunningly beautiful. It’s a record of Penn Station. These places, they have their own existence. The city exists without us. We could all die, and the city would still be here... unless we blow it up. And it’s just quite magical. It’s theater. Of course, our lives are theater. Right now, this conversation is a little bit of theater — way, way, way off Broadway I might add — but never the less, theater and that’s what it’s about. It’s about theatricality, history, drama, and the empty street.

And every now and then you might see somebody, and there’s something kind of … they all look like ghosts. And these photographs look like ghosts too. It doesn’t exist in the same way… the way we won’t. I’m 87 and I’m not going to be around… [in] my family everybody goes at 85, 86, 87, so I’m at the cusp of ‘not being.’ I call it ‘not being,’ I think death is such a nasty word. So, I will not be. Anyway, that’s it. I’m dead.

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

FS: It’s interesting. Before I started reading this book I never would have associated your work with Atget’s. But after doing some research, the parallels between your life and his are remarkably similar.

You both served time in the army before turning your attention towards art. Atget briefly studied acting at the national conservatory of music before he was expelled, and likewise, you studied graphic design at Parsons before leaving without securing a degree. And you both worked briefly in your respective fields of study before turning towards photography. And finally, the two of you drew most of your artistic inspiration, not from other photographers, but from painters.

With that in mind, when you are looking at this work, were there any painters that influenced this body of work in addition to Atget’s photographs?

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

DM: Its interesting you said that because I’ve taken nothing from photography. I love photography, but my sources [of inspiration] are writers and painters — artists. I love the whimsy of Lewis Carrol. I love all of that childish fairytales. I also love… Magritte was a huge influence on me. And also, Balthus and de Chirico. I tend towards the surrealists. They don’t reproduce reality. I’m not a Stephen Shore kind of photographer. I don’t walk around photographing suburbs — which is a legitimate thing to do, and he does it well — but that’s not what I’m interested in. My work is theater. I did little dramas, I tell little stories.

You’re right in the terms that, Atget... I don’t identify with Atget, but I could tell where he came from.

FS: You mentioned this briefly before, but the majority of images in this book haven’t been published before. What made you want to re-visit these images and publish a book, some 55 years after you made them?

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

DM: Because it’s been 55 years since I made them! I’m on the cusp of going away, so I wanted to get them out there. It was a wonderful body of work. If you get involved in those pictures, they are very emotional for me. They are very haunting. I find them melancholy. There’s a certain... a heavy sense of time.

The decisive moment is a wonderful thing — photography deals with time beautifully. When I see those pictures Brady took of dead Civil War soldiers at Appomattox Court House in the trenches with their bloated stomachs… You can read about the Civil War, but when you see those photographs it makes it very real. Time has always had a heavy presence in photography. The genius of photography is that [by the time] I say ‘It’s now’ it is not 'now', but it is still 'now' in that film. That picture of when I graduated from high school is still there, that moment that’s not there is… [the image is] a reminisce of that moment. It’s quite poetic and very touching in a deep way.

FS: I was wondering. When you revisited this work during the course of making this book, did you view the images in a new light? Did you see them differently from when you first made them?

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.
DM: Yes, because when I first made them I was part of them. I was in them. I was of them. Now that time has intervened, I look at them again, but I am not the same person I was when I took them in the same way that they are not the same place they were when I was walking down the street looking in the window. They are two different experiences. And there’s a beautiful melancholy about it. A sweet melancholy. It’s not a sad melancholy. It’s a sweet melancholy of what once was. I like that — ‘once was.’ Those photographs are a remanence of then.

I’m particularly touched by the Penn station ones, which I mentioned before. Because there are a couple of people in there, and if you look at the clock at like 6:42.* And you knew that was 6:42 in the morning, not 6:42 in the evening. In the evening it would have been filled with computers — computers? commuters! Words that start with ‘Com.’ (Don’t even go there.) Anyway… I should have warned you that I’m very verbal.

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

FS: No, that’s great!

DM: 42 regular. Yeah.

FS: I wanted to talk to you a bit about the process of making this book and making books in general. You’ve published dozens of books over the course of your career. Books have served as a large source of inspiration for your work, be it books of Atget, of Whitman, of Cavafy.

When you’re making a book — or when you’re reading a book — what makes a book successful? What is the mark of a good book?

DM: Well, first of all, I love books.

I don’t spend money on clothes. I steal most of my clothes, I never spend money on clothes — that’s supposed to be a joke.

FS: *laughs*

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

DM: If I’m going to steal them, I might as well go to a good store instead of the second-hand shit I wear… but it’s not important to me.

But, I truly love books. I prefer my work to be seen in books. I like the intimacy of books. When you pick up a book, every single sentence in that book is a thought. The writer sat down and thought that sentence and then he wrote it. If you could hear a book it would sound like a symphony. And if you’d go to a library or a bookstore, if you could hear the books it would be a cacophony of all kinds of sounds! It’s really quite beautiful.

Books are my best friend. I prefer my work to be seen in books. You know exhibits are nice and all that, but ultimately you have this book that will last way, way, way beyond the exhibit. And you could revisit the book at any time. You could go to the bathroom and sit on the toilet and read a book — yeah, I said that!

I truly love books. You read something, say by Walt Whitman or Cavafy and it was written over a hundred years ago. It’s beautiful. The idea that those words endured through wars — present wars, Hitler, and hopefully through Trump (unless they burn them. Of course, Nazis and all fascists have to burn books. They have to burn ideas.)

So, I do prefer my work to be seen in books because of the intimacy of books and the privacy.

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

FS: You mention the intimacy of books. I know that you don’t print your photographs large. They’re rather small prints compared to your contemporaries. Is the reason behind that, that sense of intimacy you want to convey?

DM: Yes. I love diaries. I like anything that’s personal.

I hate those large photographs. I once said that an 8x10’ Gursky picture of a parking lot in Tokyo is just a huge parking lot. But an 8x10” Robert Frank can break your heart. So, it has nothing to do with the size of the photograph. Large photographs are only designed to get attention, to take up wall space. The most banal photograph can look good if it's big, by just the sheer size.

So, I tend to like small people. 5’8” and under. I love Toulouse-Lautrec and Mickey Rooney — they’re my favorites. And I like journals and diaries, so yes, I do prefer small prints.

I’m not that big myself actually.

FS: How tall are you?

DM: 5’7”. I used to be 5’8”, but now I’m 5’7”. The incredible shrinking Duane! My dad was pre-shrunk. He never got smaller. Anyway, how tall are you?

FS: I’m roughly 6’1”.

DM: Well that’s huge! Oh Rough? How rough are you?

FS: *laughs* I don’t think I’m that rough.

DM: Well you just said roughly! Rough! *makes dog noises*

FS: This book, you published it through Enitharmon Editions. Was this your first time working with them?

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

DM: Let me think. I did something with them in the past, that’s how I know them but I don’t remember what it was. Oh! I did The House I Once Called Home with them.

FS: Oh! It’s interesting because that’s a body of work that I saw being directly inspired by this work, I see a lot of visual similarities.

DM: Uh-huh. Where are you from?

FS: Originally, I’m from Boulder, Colorado.

DM: I went to DU!

FS: How was that?

DM: Well it was far away — oh you didn’t say where was it. *laughs*

What happened was, I was 17. I’m from Pittsburgh and I was supposed to go to Carnegie Tech in those days. And I was trying to get a scholarship and you had to list three schools. So I listed my first two choices, and then I looked at the list of schools and they had the University of Denver and I thought ‘well that’s a long shot I’m never going to get it. Denver mountains — that must be nice.’ And amazingly I got a scholarship!

I was seventeen going on five. I was very naive and very young and very homesick. So, I have a soft spot in my heart for Colorado. Although I suspect Denver is getting much too big.

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

FS: Just as New York is.

DM: Yeah. Again see, I like small cities. Anyway, I wish you weren’t 6’1” that kind of ruined the whole illusion… but I’ll get over it.

FS: I’m sorry. What would my ideal height be?

DM: 5’7” I like people my size — bite-sized.

So, then what happened? I threw you off your trolley. We were talking about Enitharmon Press.

FS: Right! How long did it take to make Empty New York? How long were you working with them on this project?

DM: I don’t know. It took a long time because I’ve only published only four or five of those pictures so there were tons of them. Over 200 to go through, make choices, and remember things about them. It was very nice because it really brought back that particular time and who I was then, and where they led me.

When you do a work, the work itself is wonderful but then the second question: 'Where does it take you? What does it open in your mind?' Work should never be an end in itself. It should always open new doors for you. It has two meanings. The original meaning and the eventual meaning.

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

FS: With that in mind, I know this work is now seen as a precursor to your series, your sequences, your portraits, and your textual drawings. But going back to when you were making these photographs, what was your next step? What did you start photographing immediately after Empty New York?

DM: Oh well that led me to doing Sequences.

I always tell the story about a photograph of a barber shop. For some reason, I’m bald so I tend to photograph lots of barber shops, I guess nostalgia. But on the wall in this one barber shop was a white jacket, you know the kind that a barber puts on? And I thought: ‘Oh look! He comes in, he puts on his barber costume, and then he does his barber act!’ That was very liberating to me. Although the concept was cumulative, that was the moment when I thought: ‘Gee! Why don’t I ‘people’ this room and make my own drama?’ That was very liberating. And the next question was: ‘What’s that going to be?’ I like that idea of: ‘yeah Mr. Wise guy? So what is it? Put up or shut up.’ So that was liberating.

Then in Brooklyn, I set up a little street scene. (The bridge is over there.) I considered it a failure. But then I realized later all I had to do was animate it. Just make the people cross the street, go around the corner and disappear. It was like bringing it to life. That was a very exciting period for me because it liberated me from the tyranny of the decisive moment. I could do whatever I wanted to do. Then the question was: ‘what did I want to do?’ and then the next step to liberate me from a certain kind of photography — or to re-invent photography for myself —was to write text under it. And that was very liberating.

And now I’m making movies which is also the destination I suppose — what I’ve been doing all these years at this late date brought me to making films.

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

FS: That actually was going to be one of my last questions: ‘What you are working on now?’ So, you’re making cinematic work?

DM: Yeah, what happened was, I call them mini-movies. They’re films of maybe 5, 6, 7 minutes. I don’t have any ambitions for Hollywood. But of course, if somebody offered me ten million, I’d say 'I’ll do a porno for ten million. I’d even star in it.' Anyways, I got so distracted by the porno idea that I have to get off the phone for a minute.

FS: *laughs*

DM: Now what was I thinking about? Films!

I had a great long-time friend that I spent my life with named Fred and he died two years ago of Alzheimer’s. We were together for 57 years and the last seven years he left me every day little by little as he vanished into Alzheimer’s. During that period, I was completely saturated — marinated in taking care of him. My assistant told me that we could make a film with a little camera.

So, for... I don’t know how many years now, maybe four or five years? We’ve been making these films. I suppose by now we have thirty of them. But we’re making two right now. One is called ‘Fart Art.’ It’s a movie where I sell farts of famous artists on the corner. And then we did one where I interviewed myself which is funny. And then we’re doing another one called ‘The Bird Whisperer.’ It’s about a man who does these magical and theatrical things with birds. It’s been very liberating. To me, the ultimate liberation in the work is to make these little films. It involves writing the story, and I act in a lot of them.

You should come see the movies!

Empty New York. By Duane Michals.

FS: I would love to!

DM: You’ll be surprised! It’ll knock your socks off! (as a starter.)

FS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to add to the readers out there? Any parting words of wisdom?

DM: Do it.

Life is very, very short. A lot of people are bullshitters. They talk, and talk, and talk. I talk a lot, but I ‘do it.’ I’m very verbal, it’s natural, it’s what I do. But people talk and never do anything. Or they make projects that are so grandiose that it couldn’t happen.

‘Oh! I have this great idea. At five in the morning, I want to flood Times Square and have five hundred white horses running through the water – splashing.’

Please. That’s never going to happen. 300 I could see, but 500 is ridiculous. But do it! Do it! Do it! Life is too short.

Now, I don’t mind getting old because I did it well. But the two things [to remember]:

Number one: Have no regrets. If I think of something I’ll do it. Although I talk a lot, I’m not a bullshitter.

Number two: Don’t be poor. Being poor in this culture when you get old is very mean to you. It’s very mean. This culture is very mean. And if you have children, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to look out for you… And don’t be rich either, but, just don’t be poor.

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Empty New York. By Duane Michals.


Duane Michals is an American photographer who creates narratives within a series of images. Born on February 18, 1932 in McKeesport, PA, Michals received his BA from the University of Denver in 1953 before starting to work as a photo journalist. Over the course of his career, he has taken portraits of influential artists such as Andy Warhol, René Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp, often marking his prints with poetic writings and observations about his subject. He currently lives and works in New York, NY. The artist's works are included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, among others.

Forrest Soper is an artist and photographer currently based out of Rochester, New York. A graduate student at the George Eastman Museum and The University of Rochester, Forrest has worked as the editor of photo-eye Blog and as a photochemical lab technician at Bostick & Sullivan.

*The clock in the photograph mentioned reads 6:55 rather than 6:42.