Photographer Michael Charles :: 21st Century Camp
Michael Charles’s passion for photography blossomed early, after receiving his first camera as a young child. His career has evolved from partaking in childhood competitions (he submitted images for ribbons at county fairs) to showing his work in the artistic and cultural capital of the world - New York City.
In his early 20s, Charles shoots his work primarily in Boston and NYC. A fledgling, yet outstanding talent, Charles cites David LaChapelle and Andy Warhol as creative influences. Certainly, his photographs are meant to replicate pop art styles and a "camp" sensibility, but with a modern spin, including work that explores and plays with the concepts of superficiality and pop culture. He transcends boundaries with his subjects and allows his audiences to experience the photographs on their own terms.
The second part of his most recent series, "The Real Drag Queens," was featured in NYC in June 2013, while the first part was shown in Boston in March 2013. Edge caught up with Charles ahead of the premiere of his latest show in New York City this month. We discussed his early involvement with RAW artists, his fascination with drag queens and queer culture, and his ambitious future plans.
A RAW artist
EDGE: How did you get involved with RAW Artists?
Michael Charles: I went to my first Raw show a few years ago to see one of my favorite artists (and now close friend) and asked how I could get involved in the program from there. I saw so many talented artists involved in the program, and that made me want to get involved as well. Thus far, I’ve had three shows in Boston, one of which was the Semi-Final Award show a few weeks ago, and I’ve shown in NYC once, and I’m showing there again in January or February!
EDGE: Is this your first association with them?
Michael Charles: It is not! My upcoming show will be my fifth show through the Raw Artist program over the course of three years!
Keeping it raw
EDGE: And how was your work received in the past?
Michael Charles: The first two shows I had with Raw Artists were both in Boston, then I showed in NYC, and the last show I did was the semi-finals award show in Boston. I will also be showing in NYC in January or February. I am also on their Facebook page, so even when I am not involved in a show, I am up to date on other shows coming up and other artists.
EDGE: What’s ’raw’ about your work?
Michael Charles: In photography a lot of the time the artist looks to correct the imperfections of their subjects. With my work I pick specific people to photograph because I like their own personal aesthetic and I do my best not to alter that. I like photographing and producing a ’raw’ image of them. I pick my models, I pick my locations, I style the models, and I create a set within the location I pick (i.e. props, etc)
Why drag queens?
EDGE: Why use drag queens as subjects?
Michael Charles: This goes hand-in-hand with the last question, but I pick specific people to photograph based on the way they look, so drag queens are great to photograph because they look amazing! But aside from that, I have worked with so many drag queens now, and they are all willing to put in so much effort and endure terrible weather and crazy places for our shoots! They are just as crazy as I am! But at the same time, the images I create of them are beautiful and when people look at the photos they don’t just see a man in a dress.
EDGE: How do you come up with your concepts for your photos?
Michael Charles: I spend a lot of time thinking of concepts for my photos; it is essentially the first part of the process for me, so I explore different fashion magazines and blogs for inspiration. Or sometimes the inspiration comes from the person I am shooting. I will love a certain look, and piece together the story from that.
High fashion - sexual energy
EDGE: There’s the mix of high fashion and sexual energy in your photos. Would you say that mix defines your style?
Michael Charles: I definitely think so. I would also like to add campiness to that. I want people to have different reactions when they look at my work. Ultimately I am aiming for high fashion, but with that I like to play off the drag queens and pop culture adding the ’camp’ feeling to them, and with the addition of the second model comes the sexual energy. I would like for people to look at my work and create a story in their mind as to what is going on, even if that story differs from the initial story I created for the photo.
EDGE: How did you find your models?
Michael Charles: To be honest I am just really lucky. I have been shooting for years and I have met so many amazing people, and for a long time I was asking so many people to shoot. Now I am fortunate to have people contacting me asking me to photograph them. I have met so many really great people that way!
At Fenway Park
EDGE: Have you a favorite to work with?
Michael Charles: I cannot say I have a favorite because I haven’t really worked with anyone who I have had a problem with. Everyone that I have worked with has been (for the most part) pretty great. I’d consider most of them my friends. There are people I have shot over and over again though. I genuinely like everyone I shoot, and as I said, I am fortunate enough to call most of them my friends.
EDGE: And a favorite shoot?
Michael Charles: I won’t talk about one in particular, but my ’Real Drag Queens’ series has been the most fun series to work on! I have traveled to some really fun places and met really great people!
EDGE: Any funny stories to tell about your shoots?
Michael Charles: One of my favorite shoots was my ’Welcome to the Freak Circus’ shoot. I had six people in the shoot and we lugged all of our equipment (dumbbells and suitcases) through Fenway Park during a game. Everyone was in full makeup and hair and it was unbearably hot, and then the cops kicked us out of the spot we were shooting, so we had to find another location! It was so much fun and everyone had a blast, but we definitely got heckled a bit! The photos came out great though!
EDGE: Where would you like to go with your photography?
Michael Charles: Recently I have been fortunate enough to be featured in a few magazines (the cover for NEXT magazine in NYC and Get Magazine in Providence), and with my shows in New England I am starting to get more recognition. I am still working to get more pieces into galleries and covers for magazines, but I just photographed Phi Phi O’Hara and collaborated with House of Cach, which was great.
I am truly fortunate for all of the support and success I have had, I just hope it continues to grow so I can continue to show and display my work everywhere! I like the idea of being in magazines because I really want people to see my work, so knowing that people could potentially buy a magazine with my photos in it and have it in their house, or in a waiting room, or at their office for everyone to see, well that really excites me!
A new show
EDGE: You have a new show coming up in NYC -- what highlights can guests expect to see, and what inspired this show? Any shows planned for after this one?
Michael Charles: For my show I will be featuring all new work. I’ve been able to shoot quite a bit since my last show. I have 4 series I am planning on showing. I have been working with House of Cach, a designer in Providence, so most of the work will incorporate the pieces I’ve been using from them. Each series I am showing has a theme to it, each different from the last. I’m really excited to show again in NYC. The venue is different this time, and it is located in Midtown, so I think there will be even more traffic this time around! After this show I am going to start looking at where I want to show next. I’m considering Los Angeles or San Francisco because I haven’t shown on the West Coast yet. I am really hoping for this to be my best show yet!
You can catch Michael Charles’ show at the Cutting Room in Hell’s Kitchen, 44 East 32nd Street, New York City, New York. 7pm - 1 am. There will be a fashion show at 10:45pm with performances by Phi Phi O’Hara and Jiggly Caliente. Tickets are available online the Raw Artists website. Tickets ar $15 online; $20 at the door. Cocktail attire.
Michael’s work is for sale -- you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org