Will Michels Interview – Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Co-Curator of War/Photography

Joe Rosenthal, American (1911–2006), Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945, gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the Kevin and Lesley Lilly Family, The Manfred Heiting Collection. © Associated Press

Luc Delahaye, French, born 1962, Taliban, 2001, Chromogenic print, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with funds from the H. B. and Doris Massey Charitable Trust. © Luc Delahaye, courtesy of Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

Jonathan C. Torgovnik, American (born 1969), Valentine with her daughters Amelie and Inez, Rwanda, from the series Intended Consequences, 2006, chromogenic print, ed. #11/25, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the artist. © Jonathan Torgovnik

Peter van Agtmael, American (born 1981), Darien, Wisconsin, October 22, 2007, chromogenic print, ed. # 1/10 (printed 2009), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of David and Cindy Bishop Donnelly, John Gaston, Mary and George Hawkins, and Mary and Jim Henderson in memory of Beth Block. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Will Michels is the co-curator of the “War/Photography” exhibition that recently closed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The show will travel to venues in LA, DC and Brooklyn, so be sure to check it out if you can. Will was kind enough to speak to me in the exhibition space while I was in town earlier this Winter.

Jonathan Blaustein: Thanks for meeting me here, Will. I’ve never done an interview like this, in the middle of an exhibition, so forgive me if I nervously start at the beginning. What was the impetus for something this large and grand?

Will Michels: The impetus was that I’m a Houstonian…

JB: Born and raised?

WM: Born and raised.

JB: But you don’t call yourself a Texan?

WM: Absolutely.

JB: You do?

WM: Absolutely.

JB: Understood.

WM: I went to the High School for Performing and Visual Arts,and then went to Pratt Institute art college in New York Brooklyn. I graduated with a degree in architecture during the worst architectural recession in this country’s history. The job I found was project architect restoring the Battleship Texas. So this art guy got thrown into a military world by chance. I worked for the Battleship Texas for approximately ten years.

JB: Where is that?

WM: Thirty miles South of here. Between here and Galveston, Texas.

JB: So you graduated from school in New York, and then came back to Texas to work?

WM: Absolutely. I got thrown into the military world, and embraced it. I’m a photographer, and after many years, I began photographing veterans of the Battleship Texas, and military re-enactments that were all associated with the ship that I worked on. So that’s where military and photography mixed.

As part of my job, I had to look through pictures to help restore the ship back to the way it was. That’s where my interest in military pictures comes into play. I would read books, and would turn the page, and there would be a Robert Capa. Uncredited.

It drove me nuts. Just started making me think. Also, I’ve worked at the Museum of Fine Arts since I was 17. I’ve worked here for 28 years.

JB: People can’t see my facial expression, so let me go ahead and describe it as perplexed; shocked. I’ve heard of people starting in restaurant kitchens at 17. That’s not uncommon. But I’ve never heard that in a museum. Were you an intern?

WM: I started selling recorded tours for the “Kandinsky in Paris” exhibition in 1985. I’ve been on payroll ever since. I’ve only been full-time for seven years, but I’ve been either teaching or doing part time jobs since 1985.

JB: What about this particular show?

WM: A few years back, the museum acquired the Manfred Heiting collection, which included a copy of Joe Rosenthal’s “Old Glory goes up Mount Suribachi”. It is the first print ever made.

JB: This is from Iwo Jima.

WM: Yes, Iwo Jima. It’s a print made by the man who processed his film on Guam, named Werner Schmidt. It’s a remarkable little print. I assume you’ve already seen it. It was the research surrounding that photograph, and other photographs in the Manfred Heiting collection, that gave me the confidence to approach Anne Tucker, the primary curator, about doing a very small exhibition about War photography in a small stairwell gallery.

Her response was, “You know that’s only twenty pictures.” And mine was, “That’s all I want.” (laughing.)

JB: That’s funny, given where it ended up. Unfortunately, no one who reads this will be able to see this exhibition in its current format. So how many pictures are in this wing of the museum?

WM: Four hundred and eighty one pictures.

JB: It took me three full hours yesterday, and I think I got my eyes across everything. But retention wise…

WM: It’s hard to digest it in just three hours.

JB: Right, but…

WM: That didn’t really bother us much. We wanted it to be an all-consuming experience.

JB: Well, the exhibition is almost the size of a building, and I’m not exaggerating. From an audience perspective, this experience is overwhelming. It’s almost not designed to be seen only one time. Was that something that you and your colleagues took into account?

WM: I just want to say that this is a result of Anne Tucker and I looking. We had a great opportunity, because we had early grant money that allowed us to travel and look, with no agenda. All we did was gather pictures, and look at them. We started recognizing patterns. There are some things that happened in every conflict. The woman grieving at the grave is in every conflict, every War, no matter what size.

We started seeing this commonality that was happening, and it started driving us to think about the pictures. After that, we started editing, and in our natural conversations, things started breaking up into the categories. One of the last decisions we did was to make it be in the order of War.

The desire to have it in the order of War, that’s what drove the numbers. For us, it was not only about visitor experience. We were concerned about the people who serve, and the photographers who shoot pictures. We needed to include enough pictures to honor what they did, for visitors to be able to get what they did.

JB: It comes across as a comprehensive, informational record of a core human experience.

WM: One of the mistakes is to assume this a history of War photography. And it’s not. There are major, major pictures missing. It’s about the relationship between photography and War.

JB: I get that. At the same time, almost all the images in the show, more than 90%, come from the field of journalism, or from the military photographers themselves. And this is an art museum. So what…

WM: There are four types of photographers: military photographers, including amateurs, which is the soldiers by soldiers. The journalist. The commercial photographer, which includes portraiture. And the artist. So what was your question again?

JB: I wasn’t quite there. I was headed towards the fact that we’re standing in the middle of an art museum. From a standpoint of art, context is, was and will probably always remain a buzzword. The way we experience something has a huge determination on the impact that it ultimately has upon our brain and our soul.

The vast preponderance of images here come from the tradition of journalism. There are so many of today’s journo-stars on display here: Damon Winter, Peter van Agtmael, Yuri Kozyrev, Jonathan Torgovnik, Ashley Gilbertson and Tim Hetherington… I could keep listing, and maybe I’ll come back to it.

Did you want to make a statement about presenting journalism in an art context, or was it more that you didn’t feel that there was as much art that dealt with these issues?

WM: For me, a photograph is a photograph. I don’t care who took it. It’s not about journalism to me. It’s about amazing pictures. It’s about good compositions, good storytelling; the photographer being at the right place at the right time, and the choices that he or she made to get there. I think journalism is one of the most overlooked genres of photography because it’s just pigeonholed as journalism, and not amazing compositions.

One of our earliest conversations about this show was, Ann said, “This exhibition will fail if we are not true and make sure that every picture is an amazing picture that stands on its own.” We didn’t want it to become “The Family of Man,” which because of its tight edit, reduces everything to be about one thing. And War is very complex. Everybody brings emotional things to it. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t this oversimplified look at War.

JB: I think you unequivocally achieved that, both in the scope and the quality of images on display. I even stopped and asked a couple of people, who I noticed were in there as long as I was, what the hell they were doing. You wouldn’t think regular folks would have two hours in the middle of a week day. They were both students.

As far as the selection process, there was a three person curatorial team. How did you choose, amongst the three of you, which images were of a proper quality?

WM: First of all, let me say that Ann and I are confident that we looked at over a million pictures to cull it down to this 481. That includes playing cards, cameras…481 objects. So the process is we would go to the print room, and put up Xeroxes of all the photographs, and we would do it by trip.

The first thing we would do was peg them into categories. For example, we would move something that was originally categorized from our trip to Perpignan, and then put it in “Patrol.” Then we would spend a day, and just review “Patrol.” Then we would edit down. Each category is like its own exhibition, and we treated it as such. We wanted to make sure that each category was diverse in its time periods, in its subject matter, and in its photographers.

The final result was a vote of all three of us. If things got there three votes, of course it was in. If it got two votes, we argued and discussed it. If it got one vote, it was knocked out.

JB: A friend, who had been to one of the museum talks, told me that the most contentious argument in the exhibition was over Nina Berman’s “Marine Wedding.” Is that true?

WM: Absolutely. Because I can’t stand it.

JB: I’m not trying to put you on the spot here, but Nina was one of my first interview subjects. I saw that project at the tail end of the Whitney Biennial, and it moved me to push myself further as an artist. But since you said it so vociferously, why don’t you like that picture?

WM: (long pause.) I’m pretty well-spoken, and I can speak about photography well, but I have a hard time speaking on that one, because I can’t put my finger on why I don’t like it. One thing I wrote to her is that I do not feel like she took advantage of the people. That’s not what I feel.

I just don’t think it’s a good picture. I don’t like it as a portrait. And she argues that it’s not a portrait, it’s a picture of somebody having their portrait taken.

I’m just not compelled by it.

JB: So it’s not that you don’t like the emotions that it brings up in you?

WM: No. But clearly, it brings up an emotion that I can’t quite peg. But the reason why I can’t peg it is the reason why it’s in the show. Because it does spark a dialogue. One thing I told Nina, when she was here for the opening, she pulled me aside and asked me if I still felt the same way. I said, “Yeah, I still don’t like it.” And she said, “That makes me really sad.”

I said, “No, it shouldn’t. Any show, whether it’s War or Monet, if visitors like everything in it, the curators have done something wrong. They haven’t pushed boundaries.”

JB: Earlier, you talked about how important it was to you guys to do justice to the photographers, and the experience of War. I’m really curious at what point you started to consider the experience of the viewer, and what your hopes were for the impact of something this comprehensive on your audience?

WM: (long pause.) For me, it was a genre of photography that is seldom looked at. I would bring books back from Europe, and the festivals we would go to, and people would say, “How come I haven’t seen pictures like this before?”

JB: It’s not seen in the art context, for sure.

WM: It isn’t seen, period.

JB: Well, I’ve interviewed some of these War photographers, and they’re rock stars, within the world of photography. They sit at the top of the Pantheon for their bravery, and their seeming insanity, and their willingness to put their life on the line.

WM: That world is pretty small. And I don’t think people know that that world really exists. Your average everyday human. (pause.) Sorry, I forgot where I was going after that. Because you ask good questions.

JB: Thanks. You spent the better part of a decade of your life sifting through the darkest, nastiest corners of the human condition. We all know they’re there.

WM: I have always felt that people need to see this stuff. I agree with Ken Jarecke. (ed. note, in the exhibit, Mr. Jarecke has a photo of a burned up Iraqi soldier’s corpse.) There’s an amazing quote up that says, “If we’re big enough to fight in a War, we should be big enough to look at it.” I’ve never wanted to pull any punches about this. If you’re going to look at it, you should look at every part of it. Including things that make you uncomfortable. Like the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan.”

JB: I have it in my notes to ask you about that film. While I was walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking that it’s so quiet in here. Still photographs don’t have sound. I was mentally comparing it to what Spielberg did, which was so emotionally manipulative.

And just as I was taking that down in my notes, a police siren went by. My first thought was that it was part of the exhibition, but then I realized it was street noise.

WM: What is never a part of anything is smell. It’s the smell of War that nobody can comprehend, unless they’ve experienced it.

JB: When you’re using an inherently quiet medium to discuss an inherently overwhelming sensory experience…we’re standing in this huge room, and it’s so quiet. I wanted to know what you wanted the viewers to walk away with, or what you hoped they’d walk away with? I feel like you couldn’t have spent ten years, and then not had personal desires for that.

WM: There are two major groups that come to look at this work. The art world, and the military world. The military world, in general, just looks at pictures. And they want to know what type of tank it was, what the battle was like, and the insignia on the uniforms. They don’t have much interest in the idea that there was a photographer, or any idea of the craft that it took to make the picture.

Art people tend to want to make it have a bias. To make a statement. And they look at composition and mood, and put it in the context of history last. My hope was that the two groups would become aware of each other. And that the military people would be aware that the photographers are standing there, taking pictures as well. And vice versa.

But also that one is not more important than the other. They are absolutely symbiotic, and work together. I don’t think people in the past have looked at it in that context.

Every artist has been affected by War, in some way. Almost all of them have done pictures about it, in some way. One of the things I love about this show is that there’s a Robert Frank in it, and a Walker Evans. And a Diane Arbus. Most people don’t think of those as War pictures, but they are.

I’m interested in how War permeates into everything, whether you want it to or not. I was brought up, not Anti-War, but if I got a cap gun as a present, it quietly disappeared. Poof. It was gone. It was my Mom’s way of dealing with it.

And then, when I got to the ship, every stereotype I ever knew about War, and people who fight, was proven wrong. I took a step back, and gained a deep respect for it. Because I don’t understand War.

JB: That was one of the things that really struck me. I like to think big picture, so I spent a lot of time yesterday contemplating what I could take away from this. I don’t think I learned much about humanity that I didn’t already know. But it presents reality in a way that is impossible to ignore.

WM: We’ll go back a little bit. I think one reason why this is successful is that we never had an agenda. We wanted people to make their own conclusions, their own comparisons. People can look at every picture in here, but they’re only going to remember one hundred of them.

JB: If that.

WM: And for everyone it will be a different hundred. That’s what we wanted: people to be immersed in something that they hadn’t before. For them to be able to generate their own thoughts and conclusions about what’s happening. The end wall is kind of evidence of that, where people get to make their comments.

JB: I think you were extremely successful in that agenda. I looked very hard for a slant, and you’re not going to get one.

WM: You’re not going to find one.

JB: This show is about to move, no? It’s going to the Annenberg Center for Photography in LA, the Corcoran in DC, and then it finishes at the Brooklyn Museum.

WM: This is the only place where it’s going to be like this.

JB: I’m not going to push the “Everything’s bigger in Texas” narrative, but people won’t see this. They’ll see a condensed version of it?

WM: Right. We were able to build this space for it. One thing we are very pleased about, though, is that the catalogue exists, because it is even more complete than what is on view here in Houston. Because we’re an art museum, we have to have a physical piece to hang on the wall. There were a few occasions where we’d have something on the checklist for years, and when we requested it from the institution, they said no. So we have to find a substitute.

The catalogue, though, has every photo that we wanted to be in this exhibition, whether the loan was denied or not. There are four or five pictures in there that are reproduced as giant plates, but they’re not here. The catalogue is the most complete expression of the vision. At the Annenberg, they’re only going to have 150 pictures. That will be really whittled down.

JB: Where can people buy the catalogue? Amazon?

WM: I’m unsure at this time. I believe it’s sold out at Amazon and Yale, and that the only place you can get it right now is here at the museum’s bookstore. We’re working to get it re-printed. It’s been selling very well.

JB: There are a few contemporary photographs mixed in within everything else in the early rooms. There are pictures by An My Le and Luc Delahaye, both of which are really powerful surrounded by everything else. But then, in the last room of the exhibition, after a viewer’s brain is pretty well wasted, we see a group of contemporary art photographs exhibited only by themselves.

I don’t have much to criticize about this show, as it’s pretty fascinating. But I felt a little let down because, A. I didn’t really have the chance to give them their due, and B. they were less powerful by themselves than the earlier images that were interspersed. Why did you go that route?

WM: The difference is that with both the An My Le and the Luc Delahaye, that artist went to the front to take pictures, knowing that they were going to put them in an art context. The pictures in the last room are all done after-the-fact.

JB: You mentioned earlier that the exhibition is sequential, with Reconnaissance at the beginning, and the casualties at the end. So from a narrative structure, putting the art at the end was the choice to make?

WM: I had to initially argue to get the Remembrance section even considered. But we’re an art museum. To exclude a major genre in War photography would have been a travesty. I think people have a hard time going from documentary to interpretive art. They have a hard time making that transition.

But I think it’s a really, really, important genre in the idea of Art. I see no difference between this Luc Delahaye and the Walker Evans in the other room.

JB: There’s a good chance the artist (Delahaye) will be selling this picture of a dead Talibani soldier for five figures. $10,000? $20,000? Who’s to say?

WM: They were very expensive, in an edition of 3, and they were sold out immediately. We looked into purchasing it, but the edition was already sold out.

JB: From a standpoint of exploitation in art, this to me is a far more controversial picture than Nina Berman’s, and yet it’s given…

WM: It’s a better picture. Period.

JB: (pause.) It’s certainly compelling. I think it was the picture that elicited the strongest emotions in me. I hated it, pretty strongly, when I first saw it. I’ve learned that it’s best to take some space and then come back to something. Upon second viewing, I thought, I know this is an art photograph. And because it’s an art photograph…

WM: Why is it an art photograph to you?

JB: Why? The oversized scale. The use of what’s obviously a large format camera. The fact that I’ve heard his name as an artist. But I hadn’t seen his work before.

WM: A large format camera? The old Rosenthal is a 4×5.

JB: Sure, but even though this is an art museum, the journalistic images speak for themselves. Within the art world, we’ve been trained for the last 30 or 40 years, post Jeff-Wall, to question the veracity of a picture. So much staging, if you will. An informed art viewer is going to look at this photograph and say, “How do I know this is even real?” I can’t assume that this is a real, bearded, dead Afghan dude.

WM: I think it’s really a mistake to start pigeonholing the pictures like that. I’ve never done that. That is where people assume art has a bias.

JB: If I saw that in a gallery in Chelsea, I would have been forced to ask those questions. Context is key. I don’t think it’s a bias so much as a training.

WM: The bias has been trained.

JB: Why should I assume that he’s dead?

WM: Why should you assume that anybody in any of these pictures is dead? That’s my question. Why are you singling out that one picture to question it?

JB: Fair point. I’m not coming at this from a negative perspective. Anybody walking through here should be asking questions of themselves. I singled out a particular picture mostly because it was interspersed with everything else, as opposed to the art that was segregated. You gave a reasonable answer. Obviously, everything in this experience has been thought out and planned, and it shows. It’s a little sad that everybody who gets to see it in the other cities is not going to get this experience.

WM: I’m curious if you noticed, when you were going through the show by yourself, that the photograph next to it is of the same dead Taliban?

JB: No. Most definitely not.

WM: (laughing.) Luc Delahaye, (on the left) Seamus Murphy. (on the right.) They are two very different pictures.

JB: The second one that you’re alluding to is black and white, smaller, and has a more journalistic composition. (As opposed to deadpan.)

WM: It’s more about the landscape. Additionally, people who are used to looking at War pictures, when they look at the Delahaye, they look at it and assume it’s a pilfered body. He’s missing his shoes. His wallet has been pulled out, and is at the top of the frame. When a soldier falls on the battleground, one of the first things that gets taken is their shoes. They’re like gold. If they fit you, and his shoes are better than yours, you swap them out. So that’s what it implies in this picture.

In reality, he was shot while praying. And his shoes are still there. They’ve never been stolen. So they’re two very different pictures. This one (Delahaye) does reference painting, and the other references journalism.

JB: And you don’t have a problem with the degree to which this death was commodified as art?

WM: Absolutely not. What matters to me is that the photographer was there, and took the picture. As far as I’m concerned, he’s taking it for an audience that would normally not look at a picture like that. So he is doing journalism a favor by forcing the Art World to look at these pictures.

JB: Great answer. Some of the most successful photos for me, the ones that resonate in my brain, have a power and an ambiguity, outside of the caption. Like the dead arm jutting up through the grave dirt. Pancho Villa had someone assassinated, and they weren’t dead enough, so they tried to climb out.

Some of the pictures don’t need a caption. Were there photographers that you thought were so successful that they elevated above the rest of the meta-narrative?

WM: What was really great about the project is that we looked at all of the images without names in front of us. We just looked at them in terms of categories. Those mini-exhibitions, as I called them earlier. Pretty late in the project, both Ann and I separately panicked. Because we hadn’t looked how many Capa’s were in it, and such. We didn’t know how our weight was. So we shook the project, and everything percolated up to the top. The great photographers had the most in it. The most is Roger Fenton.

JB: The Roger Fenton photos were from 1855, and throughout the show, I thought they were consistently genius.

WM: He’s one of my favorites. He’s a brilliant, brilliant photographer.

JB: That was a broad question, but I came up with the same answer in my viewing experience. His great-grand kids have got to be dead by now, but let’s give him a collective shout out. The dude was massively talented.

Another surprise, given the World War II focus, was how little we see of Hitler. The ultimate “bad guy.” Because every good War story has to have a great bad guy.

Who did you think was the biggest monster in the show? There were a few that I’d take a free shot at, if I had one.

WM: I don’t know what you mean by your question?

JB: You know, straight up “bad guys.” You don’t see a lot of that in the exhibition, given the measured tone. People who when you look at the photograph, they elicit hate and anger. Like that Serbian soldier kicking the corpse he just killed. But I don’t want to give away my top choice.

WM: Laurent Nkunda. (by Cedric Gerbehaye, from the Congo.)

JB: Yeah, he was the Number 1 a-hole. He reminded me of Marlo Stanfield from “The Wire.”

WM: He’s a cocky, arrogant, evil man. That’s what he is.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 4 Comments On This Article.

  1. If anything, Laurent Nkunda is a great example of someone whose true narrative has become hopelessly confused by the fog of war. Inaccurate, and outright dishonest reporting attempted to portray him as an evil monster, but so many of those stories have been debunked or contradicted that the truth remains obscured. He’s definitely not the “straight up bad guy” you’re looking for. But then again, the wars of the last half century have seen few straight up good guys or bad guys.

  2. Kim Phipps

    Great interview. I’m really looking forward to seeing this show in LA soon.