It began with a letter.
In the early ’90s I was in school studying photography and learning its lineage, getting excited by who begat whom and finding heroes who made photos that seemed beyond what I might be capable of. Duane Michals, Arthur Tress, Garry Winogrand, Joel-Peter Witkin, and the Starn brothers were all there for me at the start. I graduated and moved to New York City and kept making work, but my influences changed as I became interested in more subtle photography. Somewhere around 2010, though, I reconnected with the work of Duane Michals. I started buying his books online, one every few weeks, and as each hit my doorstep I became more and more consumed. His work was enduring, and I decided to write him a letter asking if we could meet. He responded, and that meeting was fantastic and ended with him inscribing one of his books, “Tim! Go Away!” as he ushered me out the door.
Over the next few years I repeatedly turned up at Michals’s openings, and eventually insinuated my way into assisting with the short films he was making. In the years since that fan letter we have become close friends and, often, collaborators. I made a book about the origin of this friendship and stole the title from his insistent and funny inscription.
For me the animating idea in Michals’s work is summed up best by himself: “Trust that little voice in your head that says, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if...’; and then do it.” His work is easy to connect with. One of the things that makes his photographs so compelling is that there are never any technical tricks (save for an occasional multiple exposure). There’s rarely any artificial light (save for the rare instance of a single hot light on a stand). There is never an exotic or expensive location (they are often shot in the same empty white-walled room). His images are technically simple, but the ideas behind them are rich—that is the essence of their excitement. An idea is cleverly created in front of a recording box, a device that at its core has changed little since it was invented two centuries ago. It is work that speaks to all that “… I could do this!” reveals. And Michals wants you to do it. There are no secrets being kept out of the frame. His philosophy is meant to encourage, and he promotes the notion of you, the viewer, creating something for yourself, instead of the artist promoting himself.
Recently I took Michals to hear Robert Frank speak, and I watched as Michals turned into an utter fanboy, nearly unable to speak to an artist I see as his peer—though I’m not sure Michals could even use that term, seeing how humbled he was.
Photography is a wonderful medium. You can make a photo in 1/200th of a second and then take as long as you like to examine why you made it. I have had a lot of time to contemplate why I made two books about older photographers from the canon (TIM! GO AWAY! and my forthcoming book, ForTress, about my friendship with Arthur Tress). I have come to realize that I made these books, and the connections that led to them, partly because I wanted a glimpse into my own future. Would I still be making photos when I’m their age? I also realize these books enabled me to indulge in hero worship a bit while procrastinating on my own work.
Michals had no idea that I was making TIM! GO AWAY! until it was finished and I handed him a copy. That book ends with fictionalized advice that I imagined he might give me after seeing it. It is easy for me to deify my influences and forget that I Michals and I are on the same journey; that we are peers. The advice that I created and am still giving myself reads, “Tim! Now it is the time for you to kill the Buddha! You have built me up and fetishized me through my work, my books, my words, myself…but now it is time to make your own path! Remember, it hasn’t been done until it’s been done by you!”
This article first appeared in Issue 11 (sold out).
Tim Soter is a Brooklyn-based fine art and commercial photographer. He is the author of several books including TIM! GO AWAY!, Electronic Music: New York City 1995, Fumetti, and ForTress, a book about his friendship with Arthur Tress. His work and books can be found at TheShipEscaped.com