From Alexis Michelle to Monet X Change To Miz Cracker, James Michael Avance can be found shooting some of the most dynamite queens in New York City and beyond. From small town beginnings to now behind the lens capturing some of the most sparkling beauty of New York City’s nightlife denizens, Avance just may be ready for his own next act. I sat down to chat with him about his start in the world of photography, what it’s like being equally as talented as a vocalist behind the mic, and what amazing projects Avance has just around the corner.
Get Out-You are one of the most premiere photographers for drag performers in New York City. How did you get into the world of photography?
JMA-Thank you for saying that! I still find it odd the labels we are given sometimes and I often ask myself If I am in fact, a photographer. I’ve never considered myself to be anything more than an artist and I realize now that the camera is just a tool I use to create my art. I may not give myself enough credit though, as these days I’ve learned more than I realize. Photo capturing has always been a huge passion of mine and I believe I first picked up a camera in fifth grade photography club where we use to develop our own film. I think I’ve always enjoyed having something between me and reality and that’s usually my art. Photography is a way to focus on the beauty that is all around while completely cropping out the things that just don’t matter. Photography is only one of the many things I am passionate about, but somehow it took over in the last few years and became the thing I was most known for. It was as if over night everyone suddenly wanted to create with me. I am very grateful for this, but It did not happen over night.
When do you remember first getting first bit by the photography bug?
Around 2013 I bought my first “professional” camera. I was honestly only trying to keep my artist brain from going batty while on the road with an eighteen month touring production of The Addams Family. If you know me, you know that I’m always creating and I hate to stay stagnant. I remember truly debating the idea of even buying a camera as it was very expensive and I am definitely a thrifty queen. I like to make money, but when it comes to spending it on things that will make me happy I sometimes back out. I come from a lower middle class family and we we weren’t exactly allowed to have much on the side of luxuries. My friend Jen who convinced me to go for the purchase recently reminded me in a text saying “can you imagine if you had not bought that camera”?! The answer is of course no. It’s a reminder to go for what makes you happy even its a detour from the current plan. For a few years, I was really just taking head shots for actors and always for free. I had a lot of connections into the theatre world and just about everybody in the biz needs them, so it just made sense. I loved to shoot portraits, but for me head shots got very boring very quickly. You’re so limited on what you can present. I’ve never really been too interested in reality and finding drag definitely changed the game and ultimately my life.
Who would you like in front of your camera that you have never gotten to work with already?
Alyssa Edwards has always been the end all for me and was number one on the goals chart. She not only walked in very early on in my career, but has continued to be a support system. I remember thinking I could retire that day because for me she was it. I think that was the moment I stopped worrying about the fact that I wasn’t a big time photographer; I still see myself as such. It was the day I stopped trying to prove that I was an artist. She told me she had seen one photo of mine and that the work spoke for itself, and I try to remember that every day. If its good enough for Alyssa, its good enough for me. I retired from drag that day, but continued to work with the stars. This is not a title I hold for those of fame, but for anyone who is authentically kind and honoring themselves.
You are also an absolutely remarkable vocalist and put a number pf your acoustic performances online, including your own material, like the track “Flying High”. Where did this love of music come from?
It honestly makes me tear up these days that people are starting to recognize me as a singer. As I said, I find it interesting the labels the world puts on us all. For a few years, I think anyone that came in contact with me had no clue I was a musician in any way. This would come as a surprise to those who had known me for twenty plus years! For those people are all shocked, I had put it aside to start taking photos. Singing is still the number one thing that gets me through the day and I wrote my first song in the ninth grade after a vicious cheerleader broke my heart. The piano and guitar are just as much a part of my soul as photoshop and the camera.
Who truly influences your careers regularly?
I hate to be a total cliche gay but my first influence was Judy (Garland). I remember rewinding the “Somewhere over the Rainbow” scene over and over again to the point of destroying my only VHS copy of The Wizard Of Oz. I even sang that number at my Pre School Graduation. I grew up in the small city of Muskogee, Oklahoma which meant finding where the art was. I will hunt my people out like a dog smelling a steak. We had a pretty good community theatre which is where I took my refuge in, so theatre naturally took over and continued to dominate for a large sum of my life. I graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a degree in musical theatre in 2011. I did pursue this and was even blessed to have a few successful years in the business before I started to feel like a hamster on a wheel. It isn’t that I don’t love to perform, but I was starting to realize that I was meant to be the creator. There was definitely something making me very unhappy and after a few pivotal life changes, a terrible break up, and one major ham string pull, I finally broke down. I had just gotten off a few back to back contracts and I just wasn’t feeling myself. It was time for a break. A break that lead into a a three year awakening. I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the bills after leaving ,the only thing I ever knew but photography had become a real hobby on tour so I thought maybe it could get me by. I decided to give it a go, but couldn’t seem to make that jump at really accepting money from people. I ended up having two years as a local coffee barista while doing photo gig after photo gig for free. These were the years that my label changed and suddenly I was James the photographer and was actually starting to become some what known. As an artist recognition is everything so I was happy but through the success of that label I started feeling depressed. I thought I was never going to have a chance at really making music on the level Id like to. Something inside was telling me in order to be successful I needed to pick one thing and stick with it.
So what have all of these experiences taught you?
These days I’m starting to learn that you can’t fight what you and you don’t have to be just one thing. The world wants to box you into a category because they truly can’t handle you being more than what they think you should be. So for a few years I was James the photographer. I’ve recently been blessed to arrive at a major break through in realizing we can all be anything and everything we set out to be. Why not do it all? Why not make yourself happy and have no regrets? When people ask you what you do they really are asking what makes you money. Maybe for money at that given time in your life you are a Starbucks barista. This does not take anything from what you really do. Any time someone ask me what I do I always reply with the this phrase. “A great many things.”
Would you like to pursue music into a full blown career
Absolutely! Although I’ve now realized I’m what I like to call a creative entrepreneur. I would love to have an album, but would also love to write for other artists which is what I’ve really started doing. I have been writing my debut album since I was thirteen, so one of these days it might just blow up your iTunes. However, photography isn’t going anywhere. There is something about the still image that seems to captivate people in a wild way. What I love the most about photography is that no matter how many easy access tools people can get ahold of, the true artist still seem to be making their way to the forefront. I think this is amazing. I surely hope music can blow up the way photography has!
When did your love affair with drag queens and the art of drag begin?
The first queen I ever met in NYC was Paige Turner. I went to her show Slurp many moons ago when it was still at VLADA and I was pretty mesmerized. Im not going to lie, Paige might be the original fall for drag. This is only for the reason that it was so different from any drag I had ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, We use to go to the drag bars in college all the time but in Oklahoma, the drag is very presentational and typically more about look. Anyone who has ever seen drag in NYC can see that there is a completely different world going on here. I encourage anyone and everyone to get out to see the local girls when in town. The queens of NYC come to turn in it out, they come to tell a story, they come to give a show. It’s less about collecting the dollars or turning a look and all about truly showing the uniqueness of their character, talent, and abilities. Not to mention the competition is fierce because NYC breeds twenty drag queens per city block and new ones pop up by the second. I remember seeing the photos these girls were turning and thinking “ oh maybe there is a market for this”. Even if there’s not, it surely has got to be more fun than head shots and maybe it could be a door way into taking the kind of fun fantasy shots I dreamed of taking for any side of the bus star. I spent an entire year just reaching out to any queen I could. I offered free photos to anyone and everyone that would come around. Most of those messages were ignored to be honest, although a few years later I think a few girls attempted to cash in the request. Turns out, there is a market for this stuff and it is in fact way more fun than head shots (which I still do for the right people)
How important do you think drag queens are to our community?
I think they are of the upmost importance. I think many gays live vicariously though drag queens because no matter how much we like to tell ourselves we have evolved, many still live under the rule of be different, but not too different. Drag queens are a reminder to not only have fun, but more importantly they teach us to not care about all the outside perspective on our own chosen skin. Unfortunately for the pioneers of the art there are many queens today that I believe are doing drag for the wrong reasons. As it has become more widely excepted were starting to see a lot of the “opportunistic drags” as I like to call them. However, the fact that you can slap on a bit of drag to suddenly make your gimmick more interesting shows the power of drag in itself. You’ll never be defined by one thing so ultimately its still a plus for me. People like Monet X Change are the true leaders. It’s not just something she did to gain a quick following. She was called to do the role by whatever higher power you’d like to imagine. Queens like Monet or Alyssa Edwards don’t use drag as a mask to hide behind. They are using it to be true to their authentic self. That kind of drag makes me feel beautiful every day. That kind of drag inspires me to be myself and that is the kind of drag that should lead us into the new day.
You recently did a fantastic video with RuPaul’s Drag Race Season Ten and New York City drag darling Monet X Change titled “Make Me Pretty”. Tell me about it.
Monet has become a near and dear friend. I remember the first time I shot her a few years back. There was that odd electric energy in the air and I just knew in that moment that she was going to be somebody important in my life. The video was really just a reason to hang out with her because I never get to see her. She’s busy and like I said, I’m always creating, so even a hang out with me will usually lead to creating some kind of art. I also have a few important projects coming up and am trying to keep the engagement rolling in hopes that my YouTube page isn’t deserted when I go and drop the magic.
When James Michael Avance is not taking pictures or making beautiful melodies. what can we find him doing?
I’ll have to let you know when it happens. Thats really all I do.That or making not so beautiful melodies. Depends on the day.
What projects are you currently working on? Is there anything left for you to accomplish that you haven’t accomplished yet?
I’ve actually started teaming up with a few of may favorite queens and designers to start my next step. Combining the two things I love the most: imagery and music. Like photography, Cinematography has also been a major passion and hobby for over fifteen years. Music videos are next on the list and a few tracks have been completed. Im not going to give to much away on this. Just know that Im hoping to do the same thing with music videos that I did with photography and I’m only in competition with myself so maybe I’ll win. Be on the look out for that because Ive never been more excited about anything in all of my life and more importantly subscribe to my YouTube channel. I also have silently been working on a coffee table book entitled “I AM NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER” Well, I guess not so silent anymore.
Check it out James Michael Avance at IsThatJMA across all social media platforms.