Michael James O’Brien’s Drag Queens: Personality Over Glitter
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra,
The work of photographer Michael James O’Brien has shine a stark light on the colorful world of the Drag Queen community. His Girlfriend portfolio captures a wide range of Drag Queens from around the world and the result is an explosive and wonderful work, portrayed with mastery and art.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 14th issue of ODDA Magazine.
When do you start in the world of photography?
I received my M.F.A from Yale University where I studied with Walker Evans in the early 70’s.
Our new issue has a Queen theme, you spent many years photographing the world of drag queens. What interested you about this movement?
When I returned to New York City in the early 80’s, the city was ruled by amazing nightlife & the nightlife was ruled by DJ’s, performance artists and drag queens – sometimes all in the same person. Though I worked as a freelance photographer by day, I went out every night to clubs like Pyramid, Mudd Club, Jackie 60, Area, Danceteria – to name a few of the best.
How did you select those wonderful drag or transgenders that we see in your Girlfriend portfolio?
The people here are really drag queens though. As RuPaul famously said: “We are all born naked, everything else is drag”. I chose the subjects from the clubs I went to and many were friends from my night time travels.
Why, as it is such a colorful world, do you portray them in black and white?
In the two years from 1990-1992 that I concentrated on making the photos for the book Girlfriend, which Random House published in 2000, I traveled to London, Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles and Miami and of the hundreds of photos I made, most are in vivid color!
You also extract them from their environment to place them on a neutral and gray background where you highlight their facial gestures and get a more brutal image of them?
Based on my inspiration from Nadar and Irving Penn, I decided to do a black-and-white series at the big drag fest Wigstock to draw the attention to the person underneath the drag and not allow the glitter to overwhelm the portrait. I think the images are gentle and clear, not brutal. The portraits are always a collaboration with the subject.
In which cities do you portray the characters for this portfolio?
For this portfolio, the portraits were made in the East Village of New York City in Tompkins Square Park in natural light over a two-day period.
Did you shoot analogue for this portfolio? Which cameras did you use?
Of course. In 1992, when these portraits were made, digital was not an option. The work was done with Pentax 6×7 cameras and the film is Tri-X rated at 320 asa. I still use the same cameras, but now I also use medium format digital equipment, which I love!
One of the drag queens that you portrayed, who we consider to be a true Queen is Dorian Corey. What was it like work with her?
Dorian was true royalty. Here are lines from a poem I wrote about her:
Years ago, closing a place
Hitting the streets, looking up-
I saw, I thought I saw,
In her yellow feathered coat
At dawn, but
It was only the sun. – MJO, Blueprint c.2017
How did you meet Dorian Corey?
New York City was full of legendary meetings!
Did you see her work at her Voguing parties? Did you live that time in NYC?
My dear friend Chi Chi Valenti, the impresario, was often a judge at the Voguing Balls of the 90’s. So many people are dead. I am privileged to have been there.
Another person that you portrayed and we love is Mr. Pearls. What was that session like?
Mr. Pearl is a close friend. Working with him was a pleasure. He was compliant and took direction flawlessly. When I lived in Paris (from 2004- 2010), we often walked along the Seine in the evening and had vegetarian dinners and a bottle of lingerie-colored rose together.
What is the next thing that we will see from you?
Currently I am Associate Chair of Photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, which suits me perfectly.
Upcoming exhibitions: a solo show at Gutstein Gallery in Savannah which opens April 12-June 9, 2018. Breaking Myth, a group exhibition of 5 contemporary photographers opens in Palermo at the Museo D’Aumale as part of Manifesta 12 on 16 June until 4 November 2018. MJO, December 2018.
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary.
For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others.
Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler.
Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary. For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others. Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler. Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
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