Michael Bailey-Gates: "Do Things that Make You Uncomfortable"
“I want the adrenaline rush of being uncomfortable,” Michael Bailey-Gates tells me as we sat at the bar of Milk Studios. Though the model has a striking gaze (and some pretty luscious locks that he pushes behind his ear whenever he’s thinking about an answer), I couldn’t help but get a little distracted by the photographer’s vintage Cats the Musical t-shirt. The long time friend and collaborator of people like Petra Collins and Ryan McGinley makes the kind of art that bounces from crazy colorful and surreal to soft, beautiful depictions of queer people from all backgrounds. “I’m in a phase right now where I want to try new things,” the Rhode Island native says. This is right before Bailey-Gates mentions an impromptu trip he took to Hawaii just weeks before. Milk’s Jordan Mack sat with the man of many talents to get the lowdown on his hair, discuss the state of queer politics today, and his song of the summer.
Did you start with photography first, or modeling?
Photography. When I was in high school, I was taking a lot of pictures for that site Flickr. I was such a Flickr kid. Eventually a place called River’s Edge Studios saw my work and hired me to work at their photo studio. It was really cool. Then I went to New York to learn photography. I just finished that and I’m now dealing with the sunset of August. I feel like school is going to start again.
Do you feel more comfortable in front of or behind the camera?
It depends on the day. Sometimes I prefer being behind the camera, but modeling also has its perks. You can’t complain about it.
You started Mike and Claire with your friend at art school. How would you describe it?
It’s another project I have right now. I like to keep busy and have a lot of projects. Mike and Claire is just another project that I really love working on. It’s just us having fun. We both like using the idea of being joyful and happy. In art school it’s always very serious and dark. People tend to express their ideas in a way that will make you feel emotional. Sometimes being more accessible and colorful helps to talk about things.
Are there any projects that you’re specifically excited about right now?
I just finished a show at The Hole that I did with my friend’s underwear brand which was really cool. I was making really large scale photocopy prints. I just finished a shoot that I did for the Wild Magazine. They’re really nice people. I’ve also been shooting a lot of portraits over the summer and releasing them when I feel like it.
Is there any creative outlet that you haven’t gotten to explore that you want to?
I’m in a phase right now where I want to try new things. I want the adrenaline rush of being uncomfortable. I just got asked to be in a movie that I’ll be filming for a month upstate. I can’t say too much about it, but I’m excited about it. I’m really nervous about acting, but I’m also working with a lot of people that I feel very comfortable around.
I feel like there’s been a huge surge in queer art lately. Do you feel like you’re a part this?
Absolutely. I feel like there’s a danger in sensationalizing any particular group. There are people that have been out there doing this for decades and have been great advocates. My fear is that the more glamorous side of it will be put on top while the rights and justice will be swept under the rug. I don’t think that’s totally the case though. There are people being put in a spotlight. Fashion has been pretty great about putting a spotlight on people like Hari Nef, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. Even with Caitlyn’s case though, it’s hard because you have to be careful not to take away from the conversation about trans violence. The fashion side can be glamorous, but it’s also historical.
You’ve mentioned that you have a desire to preserve queer art. How do you feel like you’ve been doing that?
I’ve been thinking about my place in it. I’m a photographer, so I think, ‘How can I use photography to do something to preserve this artistry?’ I use it to take portraits of friends and queer people. I have a project coming up where I just want to document people as they want to be seen, not as they have been assigned. I hope that makes sense. Fashion has the tendency to take the stance of, ‘I think you look like this and this is my awareness of you, so I want you to look like this.’ I’m more into talking to people and seeing how they want to be photographed and putting my style on it.
I’ve seen that come up a lot. How do you mitigate the dichotomy between being a photographer who may have a vision, and wanting to accurately represent your subjects in the way they want to be seen?
I think that as a photographer and being aware of someone’s identity can be pretty radical today. Everyone thinks, ‘This person is interesting, but they look interesting like this.’ Some people do that well, but I’m more interested in photographing people the way they want to be photographed, at least right now in life.
Do you feel like you see that mode of thinking penetrating your larger scale fashion shoots?
Yes! I’m privileged in this way where I can play a masculine surfer dude, but also be really feminine in the way I prefer to be. I get to play this fun androgynous role.
What’s your life motto right now?
Do things that make you uncomfortable.
How do you keep your hair so beautiful?
By only posting the best pictures [laughs]. Plus, I only use dry shampoo.
If you could have brass knuckles that say anything, what do they say?
I’m not a huge fan of punching people out. Maybe my phone number so I can explain what happened and sincerely apologize [laughs]. I’m a pretty awful driver, so maybe I’d just get little bumpers on them. Or, hey what’s up hello.
What’s your song of the summer right now?
Have you heard Hilary Duff’s ‘Spark‘? I love a good pop song. It’s such a one note idea that you can always get behind it.
What’s your style in two words?
For the summer it’s ‘camp counselor.’
Do you have any advice for queer artists out there trying to make it?
Listen to your friends. They’re usually right [laughs].
Is there anything else you want our readers to know about you?
A lot of projects focus on queer people I know, but I’m also interested in queer people I don’t know. If anyone is interested in helping me with my project please contact me.
Artwork courtesy of Michael Bailey-Gates
Michael Bailey-Gates exclusively photographed for Milk Made by Miyako Bellizzi