It’s hard to remember a moment when Meryl Streep wasn’t the most celebrated actress in the world. But when photographer Duane Michals shot her in 1975 in New York’s theatre district, she was entirely unknown, a recent graduate from Yale School of Drama who hadn’t yet made a film.
“The picture was taken before she was famous,” Michals remembers. “I had simply been told she was super talented and big things were in the wings. We went up town and ran around the Marquis theatre and had a lot of fun. I asked her to dance and she was as joyful as she seems in the photograph, just radiant.”
In contrast, by the 1970s Duane Michals was already well established as one of New York’s most interesting portrait photographers. His specialty was taking idiosyncratic images of the most famous people in art, film, music and literature. His subjects including Susan Sontag, René Magritte, Jeanne Moreau, Jasper Johns, Robin Williams, David Hockney, Eartha Kitt, Stephen King and Johnny Cash. The extensive collection has recently been collated into a book called, simply, Duane Michals: Portraits.
The photographer has a theory about his success. “You should never take the same portrait twice,” he says. “Most portrait photographers have a style and then they fit the person to the style. But I don’t like that. People are unique and you should come up with something unique to each one of them.”
The result is a canon of work that defies easy categorisation, and stretches far beyond portraiture. Michals is also known for his surreal and beautiful narrative series, which blend text and photography employing annotations to point the way. His work is inspired by writers like James Joyce and artists like Magritte: “You know how they say you remember where you were when Kennedy died? I remember where I was when I first saw Magritte.”
Today, at 85, he is busily making movies. “We’ve made 18 of them over the last two years. Recently I made Ruski Business about Trump and Putin’s first date, starring a Putin lookalike and me in a wig playing Trump.” He pauses to think. “I’m nearly 86, I’d like to make it to 90 just as long as I get to see Donald Trump kicked out.”
This levity points to the other key to Michals’ success. “Having a sense of humour is essential. I hate artists who take themselves seriously. I’d rather tell a bad joke than anything.” And it is humour that shines through in his shots of Stephen King, draped in a Maine cobweb, or his hero Magritte, his back to the camera in the iconic bowler hat.
With humour comes ease, and it is unquestionably ease that infuses the picture of Streep, perched on the brink of fame but already transfixing the camera with the effortlessness of a star. “I was totally floored by her,” says Michals. “She was comfortable, she was magnificent. Then afterwards she invited me to her apartment where we had coffee and homemade cake.”
The publication of this latest book means he is repeatedly asked what photography means to Duane Michals, and what he looks for in his own work. It’s a question he answers with steely resolve. “I don’t think photographers should tell you what you already know. I know what trees look like, and tits, and cars. They should tell me what I don’t know, but of course they don’t. So my value to anyone is to contradict them and surprise them. I like surprise.”
Duane Michals: Portraits is out now, published by Thames and Hudson.