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Michals Reflects on McKeesport Roots, Future

Artist, 91, in town to lead workshop: “I feel uncomfortable in my ‘comfort zone’”

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
July 17, 2023
Posted in: Announcements

Artist Duane Michals, a McKeesport native, clowns with Meagan Donnelly, community outreach coordinator and research specialist at McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center during an event Friday night. (Tube City Almanac photo)

Pittsburgh’s most famous 20th century artist wasn’t known for being articulate, one of his contemporaries told a crowd of McKeesporters on Friday night.

Talking to Andy Warhol — who was notoriously shy and tongue-tied — was “like talking to a phone off the hook,” Duane Michals said, imitating Warhol: “Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh.”

Michals, 91, a McKeesport native whose photography has appeared in galleries around the world and in magazines such as Life, Time, Mirabella and Vogue, returned to his hometown to lead a three-day photography and filmmaking safari in McKeesport, Rankin and Pittsburgh.

On Friday, more than 150 people were regaled with stories of Michals’ interactions with the rich and famous — his opinion of former President Donald Trump, who he photographed for a magazine feature story, is best described as “not family friendly” — and not-so-famous, like Arnold Varga, an illustrator for McKeesport’s Cox’s Department Store whose work went onto win national awards.

(Both photos: Tube City Almanac)

The Varga family lived across the street from the Michals family on High Street, just off Jenny Lind Street, Michals remembered.

Art directors “begged Arnold to come to New York City,” Michals said, “but he wouldn’t leave” McKeesport.

Michals, who produced memorable advertising campaigns for companies such as MassMutual as well as album covers for The Police, told the audience that he has never been ashamed of being considered a “commercial” photographer.

He joked that he couldn’t complain about a career that included “taking pictures of beautiful women.”

Once, Michals said, a young photographer told him “I would never sell out.”

“I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you have nothing to sell,’’’ he said, to laughter and applause. “I hate the term ‘artist.’ I’m not a photo snob. I don’t mind doing commercial jobs, because if you’re doing commercial jobs, you can’t (screw around).” (Michals did not say “screw around.”)

A 1949 graduate of McKeesport Technical High School and a member of the school's Alumni Hall of Fame, Michals attended the University of Colorado on a scholarship before teaching himself photography. In the late 1950s, Michals shot to fame in the late 1950s after borrowing a friend’s camera and going on a trip behind the so-called Iron Curtain into the Soviet Union.

“No one was going to Russia in those days,” he said, “even Russians didn’t want to go to Russia.”

Over the past years, Michals has been collaborating with McKeesport officials and local artists to clear the site of his family home and build what he has called a “pipe palace” paying tribute to local steelworkers.

In his ninth decade, Michals encouraged his audience to keep stretching their own abilities and learning new skills.

“I feel uncomfortable in my ‘comfort zone,’” he said. “I love confrontation in life. I confrontation in my work. I always say, shoot first, and ask questions later.”

Duane Michals watches one of his short films along with the audience Friday at McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center. (Tube City Almanac photo)

Several years ago, Michals began experimenting with movie-making, and showed several short films to his McKeesport audience, including one called “McKeesport, 1931,” based on the true story of how his mother told her parents that she was pregnant. Another, called “The Boy Who Counted Stars,” depicted Michals, then 90, returning to McKeesport as a “misfortune teller” to encounter his younger self on the streets of the city.

A third film, “The End,” depicts Michals in a dialogue with the Grim Reaper, confronting his emotions since the death of his longtime husband, Fred Gorree, who died in 2017 after an extended battle with Alzheimer’s.

Michals, an avowed and unapologetic atheist, told his audience to keep questioning their own limitations and perceptions of reality.

“I have been destroyed by the Hubbell (space) telescope,” he said. “One hundred years ago, we used to think that the Milky Way galaxy was the whole universe. Then, we saw these little blurry things out on the edges. The Hubbell telescope and the Webb (space) telescope showed us, ‘No, that isn’t so.’

“Stop looking at things, and start looking through things,” Michals told his audience. “I don’t care about what something looks like. I care about what it feels like.”

Originally published July 17, 2023.

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