BENNINGTON, VT — The phone rang. And rang. Finally, after days of working to get access through his assistant Josiah, Duane Michals, one of the legends of 20th-century photography, answered.
I introduced myself and explained my purpose in previewing Michals' work now showing at the Bennington Museum, adding that his right-hand man had surrendered Michals' home phone number.
"I don't have an assistant named Josiah," Michals deadpanned.
Hearing my hesitation and slight choke, the next thing I heard was a guffaw: "Gotcha! Haha!"
Welcome to Michals' world, where the ordinary can somehow be extraordinary, and icon status doesn't carry with it an ounce of pretension. To put this lens in further focus: welcome also to the Bennington Museum's new show "Duane Michals: Photographs from the floating world," on display through Oct. 30.
Two years ago, the museum's curator Jamie Franklin discovered Michals had lived and worked in nearby Cambridge, N.Y., for more than 40 years. Franklin said the proximity was too much to pass over, as "Michals is one of the titans of 20th-century photography."
"With his use of sequences, handwritten texts on the prints, and double exposures, Michals moved photography beyond a medium that recorded the surface realities of the world," Franklin said. "He moved towards a deeply expressive medium that could convey profound emotions, ideas and narratives that are simultaneously personal and universal."
In this sense, Franklin continued, not only is Michals an innovator in photography, but also in the field of conceptual art.
What makes Michals unique, however, is that his photographic representations aren't typical of conceptual work in that "he glories not in abstract ideas, but in the beauty and darkness of the world around us," Franklin said.
For his part, Michals, who now lives in New York City, is appreciative of his life's fortunes, but also seemed somewhat amused and humbled by celebrity.
On his local connection, Michals noted that he and his longtime partner, Fred Gorree, "wanted to live either in the middle of Manhattan or the middle of the woods," which is what brought him to Cambridge.
"We lived in Cambridge for such a long time, 44 years, actually," Michals said. "We essentially gardened up there. But as a photographer, it was also a wonderful place to work. I used to use the old Hotel Cambridge as my studio when I needed one."
Specifically turning to his art, Michals said that for him, there was no moment of revelation with a camera. Things happened and then snowballed.
"I never caught the photography bug, it was more like spreading the plague," he said with a laugh. "I never planned this. When I was 26, I went to Russia for a visit. It was 1958. I borrowed a camera and took pictures of my trip, and that's how it started."
In the 1950s, Michals had come to New York from the Pittsburgh area with a desire to be in publishing. He quickly began working on advertising for Life, Sports Illustrated, and Time Magazine, to name just a few of his high-profile assignments.
The transition from ads to photographs was his evolution of being in the industry during its golden era.
"I've done everything in photography from the Paris collections of Vogue to Life covers," Michals said, "But I also have a second body of work, which is my private work. I was sort of a storyteller and I would photograph little tales."
The photos at the Bennington Museum, Michals said, are not the typical squares or rectangles one might be used to. He added that he "liked Japanese art very much and they often did fans, so I began to do fan-shaped photographs."
Almost all the works at the exhibition were shot in Cambridge, Michals said. There is, however, no theme which drives him, as he described his photos as being "all over the place."
"This body of work is mostly about nature and color, as opposed to storytelling," he said. "I like the challenge of doing what I've never done before."
Michals, who has authored more than 30 photography titles on different subjects, gave a final assessment of his craft, which he believes has made him "a very lucky guy."
"The great pleasure is in the act of taking the pictures and exploring," Michals said. "People walk around taking pictures all the time. It's the most democratic of the arts because everybody can do it. So people identify with it and its sheer pleasure. The only thing that separates me is a unique point of view."
On Exhibit ...
What: "Duane Michals: Photographs from the Floating World,"
Where: Bennington Museum, 75 Main St., Bennington, Vt.
When: Through Oct. 30
Cost: Adults, $10; Seniors (62+) and students 18 and over, $9; 17 and younger, free
Information: 802-447-1571, or benningtonmuseum.org