The story of how I met Michael is an interesting one: Michael works at FotoCare in the Flatiron District. While working at the studio, whenever one of my employers needed photo equipment we may not have necessarily had, I often was the one who got sent out to FotoCare Rentals to pick things up. Thusly, I had briefly run into Michael several times before officially and properly meeting him while he was renting the studio space out for a fashion shoot he produced and photographed. After that, we did not encounter one another again until we were both hired for the day to help my other employer clean and organize the studio. I really wanted to interview photographers for this project, and Michael was a perfect subject: we shot his portraits in SoHo, a neighborhood of lower Manhattan considered to be a fashion mecca within the city.
Allison: Tell me a little bit about your background.
Michael: I am originally from North Carolina from a small town in the middle of nowhere called Denton. I lived there for about eighteen years and then went off to college. I started out at University of North Carolina at Greensboro studying classical civilization and psychology and sociology, and then transferred to Appalachian State to get my degree in commercial photography, and then as soon as college ended, I said, "It's time to move." I packed up all of my stuff two weeks after graduating and came here, and I've been here ever since.
Allison: What made you decide to pursue commercial photography?
Michael: I always wanted to be involved in some kind of art, but I was never good at drawing, and I was never good at really being able to express any kind of emotion or feeling in anything besides photography. I got my first camera when I was around seven or eight... it was my mom's Polaroid camera. You know what happens when a kid gets a hold of one of those. Of course after that, it was a done deal. The fact that I was able to interact with others while I was photographing makes it even more worthwhile, because I love working with people.
Allison: What made you decide to go back to school? What do you hope to do afterwards?
Michael: Why I am making this sudden move from photography to fashion business management... I wanna be in fashion. I've been here about four years now, and I haven't really gotten into that world yet, because I haven't had any of the opportunities besides assisting and all that. I go to the Fashion Institute of Technology now because I want to have an understanding of the world I want to live in... where everything comes from, how everything gets started, the people that run it... whether that's through the buying and selling, the marketing, the social media... just to have a better knowledge of what I'm getting myself into. I knew nothing coming here; I was really only taught technical aspects, and then moving here, I've had to develop my own individual aesthetic.
Allison: What artists, either from your mediums or other mediums, inspire you?
Michael: I love Steven Klein... anything that he does is appreciated. Emily Soto... not just her work, but her personality, from working with her, she's very charismatic, very energetic, positive, and friendly. Andrew Kuykendall... Steven Meisel... Barbara Nitke of course, etc.
Allison: What are some of your other inspirations and what drives you to create?
Michael: Something that is able to inspire me during a shoot is actually the personality of the individual or individuals that I am working with. Being able to connect with them and being able to hear their stories, being able to hear about their opinions, their own aesthetics, their own experiences... I take that and I mold it into what I'm trying to shoot for the day.
Allison: Who were some of your mentors you met along the way?
Michael: Barbara Nitke. I've assisted her ever since I've moved up here. She's been fantastic; she's taught me how to engage with the clients, how to engage with the business side. Emily Soto as well. Tiara Marei, Stephanie Berger. They've all been women. They've all been fabulous women. Strong, driven women, and that's what I want to model myself after. They're the ones that are getting shit done.
Allison: What made you decide to pursue a creative lifestyle?
Michael: I knew I was never meant for the business side of this world. One of the personal reasons is that I was never going to wear a suit and tie. I just couldn't live with that. I knew from an early age that I wanted all these piercings and I wanted all these tattoos. Professionally, if you're living in that business side, they're not going to appreciate it. They're not going to understand it. In the photography world, in the creative world, they see my aesthetic and they see my personality. They get it. They appreciate it. They love it. That goes back to the whole situation of why I left the south. As bad as this sounds, most of the time the south can't really handle our personalities, just because of the way they're raised and they're taught... that whole Bible Belt mentality. That kind of goes back to family life. I hope my parents never see this, because they'd kill me. They got what I wanted to do, but I don't think it was ever to the level of "we fully support you". My family is very much about "business, business, business, money, money, money". I wanna do what I love, but at the same time, I can't please everyone, so I'm going to please myself.
Allison: What is the relationship for you between identity and art? Speak on how your identity and personality influence what you create... or if it's not involved at all.
Michael: When I'm shooting, and especially when I'm involved with my team or anyone that's around me, I want to always have not only a professional demeanor, but I want them to be able to see me for who I am. When we're shooting, you're gonna get the "Yassss queens. Werk! Yasss. Fierce. You're killing it!" My job is to make sure not only that the pictures are coming out the way that I want them to and the way the client I'm shooting with wants them to, but that the rest of the team is pumped up and that they're feeling it; it's not awkward and it's not tense. I think identity plays a huge part in that sense: they get to see the real me, but at the same time they're also having a fun time and getting to goof off, but at the same time getting those quality images.
Allison: What are your favorite and least favorite things about living in New York City?
Michael: Least favorite... can I name a few?
Allison: Yes, sure you can!
Michael: That starving artist lifestyle. The fact that freelance work is now limiting itself. Have you been noticing that? I've been noticing that. People also think that freelancers should work for free, or for the bare minimum, as in the bare minimum of $250 a day. Nobody can survive off of that shit. Rent here, of course, but that's just the choice of living where we live. Unless you know someone, or unless you work for someone for awhile for free, you're not really going to go far in this industry, unless you're exceptionally technically tight. I've also started to notice the individuality is starting to come back into our industry. The photographers with their set brand are doing really well while everyone else is getting table scraps. What I like about New York City... I love the late nightlife. I love the fact that I'm finally accepted for who I am, and nobody cares. I am not judged anymore. I love that people don't bat an eye when I say that I'm a creative person. I love all the different stories, the different people, the different conversations that I get to have about where they come from, what they're doing, what they've been through. It's an eye-opener coming from the south, being in that one mindset of Anglo-Saxon, white, Christian values to "Anybody can do what they want. Everybody can do what they want here." Also another negative... another thing I don't like about New York is there's no Bojangles'!
Allison: Do you have any advice for artists living in New York City?
Michael: Own your shit. Be proud of what you do. Be persistent. Be kind and compassionate when you're working. Friendliness will get you a long way in this industry. Promptness as well. I sound like I'm listing a set of job description skills.
Allison: Is there anything else you want readers to know?
Michael: We're only given this one life, so we need to live it to the fullest. Especially in today's time, with all this travesty, all this negativity, this lack of moral compassion and sincerity, just do you. Don't pay attention to what anybody else says, unless it's positive, because me being me, I always take positive criticism well, but if it's a negative thing against your lifestyle, against what you're doing, so what? Why are you trying to be a Negative Nancy when I'm just trying to live my life to the fullest? They're not paying your bills, so don't pay them no mind, in the words of RuPaul. Just make sure you love what you're doing. At the end of the day when you go home and you lay in bed, you can be satisfied.
You can follow Michael on Instagram here.