Warning: The following interview contains adult language, adult situations and nudity.
Michael Donovan rules. It says so on his website. It also says so on his Tumblr. It says so anywhere you’d find his name. And to be perfectly honest, believe the hype. Michael Donovan does rule. This is why I’m here, in a Lower East Side bar that never left 1982, having a drink and trying to hold a conversation while Asian fetish porn plays on TVs that I’m sure were taken from the dumpster behind a Motel 6.
The bar fits; it makes perfect, contextual sense – especially if one considers we actually make a valid effort to meet in a more upscale joint. But it's closed, and for whatever reason, this place sets the mood more authentically, anyway.
We grab a couple of beers and take a seat at a high-top. Michael leans in almost immediately. “Please don’t take me out of context. It can really make me sound like a dick.”
That’s because, to some degree, he speaks in perfect sound bites – bites that I could see how, out of context, could sound “dickish.” But the insight as to whom he is, is found in the long form. If humanity exists in shades of gray, then Michael Donovan exists in shades of rainbow. Calling him colorful is an adorable understatement.
To gain some semblance of understanding into how Michael sees the world, one has to know at least something of how he got here. “I grew up in the Northwest. I lived a very vanilla life of video games and television. I was the only boy in the entire neighborhood, and I would see all the girls get their hair and makeup done, and I would see that beautification process. I was around my grandmother a lot, and she was this very well put together woman. She did fashion design and had all her Harper’s Bazaar. And when I wasn’t looking at the magazines for the fashion, I was looking at them for the girls.”
Those were only the fundamental building blocks of his DNA and ultimately wouldn’t reenter the picture for quite some time. “I went to school for graphic design, but sales made more money. So I did sales. I got engaged, moved to Oregon. Then we broke up, and I went back home. [I did] stand-up comedy, and I was doing OK with that. But sometimes, I would bomb hard, and I realized that the more I bombed, the better I would do later on, because I would have more confidence, and it meant I’m going farther out there.”
From there, Michael moved to Chicago and got into the Training Center at Second City – a place that has produced people like Mike Myers, Tina Fey and Steven Colbert. It was there, almost accidentally, that he began to treat photography with a little more seriousness. He started with post-party type pictures. Then he took pictures of a girlfriend, and that was that.
So Chicago wasn’t where Michael Donovan belonged. Some people are able to get though life like a rock skipping over a pond. Some people have to trudge across the bottom of the pond with weights around their ankles before they reach the other side. “Before I moved to New York, I moved to Jersey [with my girl]. It was the heat of the recession, but I was too far and couldn’t find any work. Then my stand-up ate it, and [I had to] cash in my 401k. But I had this friend, Cora Keegan, and she said I should get into this art thing. She laid the platform down for me.”
“The girl I was with ended up meeting some other guy. So now I’m broke, and I’m in this funk where my book is ass. I can’t even afford rent at this point. I was as low as you could possibly go, and my car gets towed and I didn’t have the money to get it out. I had saved money in Chicago by living in my van, so when I saw that go, I knew I was fucked, because that was my last resort. Then a buddy gave me some money to pay rent. It was the only time someone gave me money like that. I was down and out, and he had my back. Then I got this one little job for like $500, and I was able to get an apartment in Jersey City. Sometimes it would be two months and I wouldn’t have any money. Literally, I would live on dollar value menus. I [wanted to] work, but I knew if I got any other job, I would get distracted.”
And without warning, something particularly lively appears on the screens. “What did we walk into?” he asks. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure at this point, either.
But I am starting to get it. I’m starting to get the slightest glimpse into who Michael Donovan is. “I have a comic's mind. A person that goes on stage is insane. The biggest fear most people have is speaking in public… When you pick up the mic for the first time, you’re shaking. Then you get to the point where you get pissed off because there are only 50 people in the room, and you’d really like to have more. Imagine the smartest person in the world. He just wants to go about his day and do his shit, but we’re all fucking dumb to him. Comics see the world like this. They don’t suffer; they’re just frustrated... I went through struggles to get here. But now it’s all changing. I still have my edgy work, but now I can enjoy the things I used to not be able to... I’m going through a lot of self-exploration right now, so I’m just kind of leaving it open to what the world brings me.“
I ask him to try to define his style of images. “My work,” he says, “all of it, is essentially lifestyle. I live an art life, I go to the galleries every Thursday, and I go out with my artist friends. I hang out with fashion people. I hang out with musicians. It’s all lifestyle to me.”
He knows he can be abrasive, but most people don’t want to hear brutal truth. An artist’s existence is rarely lived through rose-colored glassed. It’s also not lived in someone else’s shoes. “This is for the one kid out there, the one that will replace me when I get old. Live your own fucking life. Don’t look at my images and try to replicate it, because this is my goddamn life. I’ve had weird experiences. I was engaged to a stripper. You can see that in my work. I did stand up comedy; you can see that in my work. I grew up in a poor neighborhood. I’ve experimented with drugs. Let’s say there’s some kid, who is living a life of wealth and marries a beautiful Christian woman and they have this beautiful Christian lifestyle. He’s never done drugs and he’s never done anything and he’s perfectly clean. Don’t copy me. Be who you are – clean and wholesome. That’s why I think a lot of fashion photography sucks - people are trying to emulate someone else’s world, and all their work becomes mediocre.”
“Right now there is essentially a roster of two-dozen shooters who get passed around. Photographers need to start upping their game. Most photographers are lazy. They have a ‘Fashion Book’ and a ‘Fashion Book II,’ but it’s the same goddamn thing. It’s static ‘whatever.’ One day, there’s going to be a period where Meisel quits or wants to slow down - or Testino. Terry might be doing that, who knows what Inez and Vinoodh will be doing it at that time, or Mert and Marcus…All these people are going to disappear. Who the fuck is set up to match them? All these photographers think they’re going to become that big thing. No you’re not. No you won’t if all you’ve got is this one thing in your book, and other people are doing the same thing you’re doing. How hard do you think it will be to replace you? In my personal opinion, there are very few people that are priming themselves to take on that role. …Photographers are taught to just do their one thing. They won’t make it. They won’t be big. If you want to be in the middle, and you want to make a healthy income, that’s fine. But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be the guy with a small business. I’m not taking the path of the average photographer. I’m trying to push the remarkable.”
“Every time you shoot something some other guy did, you’re basically just sucking that dude’s dick. All you’re doing is adding value to that person, and decreasing your own.”
Is it crass? Maybe, but who cares? The moment you visit his website, you are greeted with an animated GIF silently barking expletives at you. Will people be offended? Will people be turned off? Of course. That’s the point. Art isn’t safe. It doesn’t please everyone. But sometimes, what is does do is grab you by the neck and pull you in – and once it has you, you might just evolve with it.
“People are so scared of growth. They want to stick to their one thing. You’re not the same person you’re going to be in five years. You’re not going to have the same experiences [that you’re having now]. I’m going to watch friends get married, and that’s going to affect my work. There’s going to be divorces around me. There’s going to be deaths. What’s going to happen when my parents die? I’m going to have the most emotionally wrecked work in the world. And people are going to think I’ve lost it. Or people are going to think it’s beautiful.”
I ask him what he wants people to take away from this. “I don’t care about the old fart that would read this and say, ‘Heh, he doesn’t know anything,’ or the guy that thinks I’m a prick or full of myself. I know there are going to be people like that. I want that one kid to just hear, ‘Live your life. Translate it. It’s ok. You’re going to fuck up, and you’re going to embarrass your family or yourself. Then you’re going to get over your embarrassment and just be you and see what happens.’ It’s hard for us to do that… We say we don’t listen to media. Bullshit. We’re scared to be who we are, and so we try to break free. That’s when you get an Anthony Kiedis. That’s when you get a Johnny Cash. He just was who he was. And if we can get more people like that, we can get much more inspiring art.”
So who is Michael Donovan?
“I’m me, and I’m living my life. And I’m translating it with a camera. I’m just translating my experience, and people can watch me grow and learn and love. They can watch me live. I see people struggle, because they want their work to go some way, and it’s going somewhere else. Don’t define your aesthetic… Why can’t you just be you?”
Well… why can’t you?