Duane Stephen Michals was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and attended McKeesport Technical High School. From 1949 to 1953, he studied art at the University of Denver. Since teaching himself how to photograph in 1956 and 1957, he has worked as a freelance photographer for many national magazines, including Vogue, Esquire, Mademoiselle, and Scientific American. Michals had his first solo exhibition at Underground Gallery in New York in 1963. Since then, more than 125 solo exhibitions of his work have been presented throughout the world, notably at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, 1971; Musee d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1982; Modern Art Center, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 1990; and the Irish Gallery of Photography, Dublin, 1993.
The long list of major museums with holdings of Michals's work includes the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Akron Art Museum, Ohio; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
Michals is best known for his sequence photographs, which he began creating in 1966 in New York. Dramatically different from more traditional photo essays such as those published in Life magazine, these works offered a new form of expression in the field of photography. The sequences vary in length, and the photographs are often accompanied by words handwritten by Michals after the final print is made. In these works, Michals abandons the alleged veracity of the photograph in favor of combining poetry and personal narrative with camera-made images. His themes are broad, but the emphasis tends toward the nature of human relationships, often within the family, and frequently focuses on the father-son dynamic. Although Michals's most celebrated sequences are not about his birthplace, he has created a generous number of works that speak directly of Pittsburgh. The titles alone are revealing: I remember Pittsburgh, Six Views of the Cathedral of Learning in the Manner of Hiroshige, Pittsburghers, John Kane, and Old Money. Seen through the eyes of a native son who grew up in a working-class family, Old Money is a whimsical response to the great fortunes of the city. Michals has also created a number of single images, for which he similarly applies commentary as a finishing touch. The most engaging of these is From My Bedroom Window, wherein we witness the heart and soul of the artist/photographer as we journey back in time to the days he spent growing up in McKeesport.
Michals's importance in contemporary photography cannot be overstated. He has influenced scores of young photographers who often directly imitate his style and has been lauded internationally for his innovative contributions to the medium. Among his many awards are a National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1976; Carnegie Foundation Photography Fellow at Cooper Union, 1979; Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris, 1982; Infinity Award for Art at the International Center of Photography, New York, 1991; honorary fellowship, Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England, 1992; honorary doctor of fine arts degree, Art Institute of Boston, 1993; and Gold Medal for Photography, National Arts Club, New York, 1994.