Michael Bailey-Gates graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2015, the same year he won the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Award, launching the photographer into the professional art world with acolytes already in tow. Mapplethorpe is a convenient historical entry point for considering Bailey-Gates, whose genre is predominantly portraiture, often of friends and editorial subjects who the artist invites to be seen through his classically-influenced lens. “I had a good awakening moment with this drag icon, Mother Flawless Sabrina,” Bailey-Gate recalls. “She said, ‘stop labeling your work as queer—just make work that is just inherently that way.’ It was so freeing to make work that didn’t necessarily have to be so rigid, so now I’m trying to offer up images that don’t use a binary system.” Bailey-Gates’s photographs bend the normative through the inversion of traditional postures, references, costumes and timing. The medium format images take on a physical presence that makes them feel like urgent souvenirs of an evolution.
Alongside friends, Bailey-Gates often figures in his own photographs and it was in fact a nude self-portrait in which he is holding an about-to-cry baby, published as the cover of Matthew Leifheit’s Matte magazine, that catapulted the artist into his current state of mind. “It popped the bubble of my social circle and for a while I had to delete myself from the Internet,” he says, recounting the public outrage he received in the form of death threat via direct message and the opposite but equal outpouring of support. “This is where my attention has been for a while now: at that intersection of change with photography. [Photography] has such a way of making an impact on people in a way I didn’t fully understand until I published that image.” These days, Bailey-Gates is back online and working on several projects alongside his regular commercial and editorial output. In the far distance a book is beginning to emerge, but it isn’t yet in focus.